Previous Section Home Page

Column 102

into the private sector in recent years. I do not believe that it is too great an exaggeration to say that. This is hardly a privatisation of the kind that other industries have enjoyed. The water industry will be moved from the public sector into a controlled private sector. The limits on the activities of the privatised industry will be much stricter than those which currently exist in the public sector. The Opposition should recognise that.

The 1995 arrangement agreed to by my right hon. Friend in discussion with the Community is absolutely the earliest date at which all the elements in the directive can be met because of the scale of investment required and the manner in which the directive will be applied. In future, 100 per cent. of samples of water content, rather than an average sample, will have to meet the directive. The industry has had to look with real concern at just how much would be involved not just in investment, but in the management of the undertaking while that investment is made. Because of that combination of factors, the time scale is crucial. It is not a matter of backing down from the directive, going for the sales material to support privatisation or seeking to undermine public confidence in the health of British water-- rather the industry is having to embark, within a relatively short time, on an entirely new method of measurement and a higher standard of filtering and refining its products. At the same time it must supply the entire United Kingdom with potable water, day in, day out. It is not too much to ask that 1995 be the date for such a programme.

Mr. Livsey : We are deliberating on one of the key issues of the Bill. We are trying to reach across an impossible chasm. We must raise the environmental standard of drinking water and try to keep down prices to the consumer while at the same time the Government's objective is to make the industry sufficiently attractive to investors. I appreciate the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) about the time limit, which is crucial in respect of the three objectives that I have highlighted. How can the gap be bridged when so much capital investment has to be made within a specific time?

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) mentioned a number of figures relating to the amount of investment which might be required to clean up the water industry. One such figure is £6 billion. That is an awful lot of money, but if the Government are serious about meeting EEC water standards they must set an investment target. One would have thought that the Lords amendment set a reasonable target. The problem is the history, which has been described in exchanges from the Dispatch Boxes earlier in the debate about who did what and when. The problem was caused by a lack of investment in the water industry which was part of Treasury policy. There is a maxim that one starves the industry first by not funding it adequately and then finds reasons to privatise it. That is what has happened to the water industry.

The previous investment programme has been strangled by the Treasury. The lack of investment has caused the Government to say that the only way round the problem is that, as they have saved so much money which could have been spent putting matters right, they now have to privatise the industry to try to find other sources of

Column 103

money for necessary investment. That is an abrogation of the responsibility of managing a public industry such as water. Lords amendment No. 64, with which the Secretary of State disagrees, puts the Government on the hook and in this debate we must not let them off the hook. Lords amendment No. 64 says :

"Where no such agreement has been reached by the date referred to in paragraph (a) above, 1st September 1993."

As other speakers have said, that is a perfectly reasonable date to which to adhere. If the Government put their mind to it, the industry could adhere to the EC directives by that time. It has already been mentioned that 11 million people in England and Wales have drinking water that does not meet the EC directive on drinking water quality standards. That is lamentable. I should have thought that any Government who accepted a decent amount of responsibility would seek to put that right as early as possible. Surely a date four years hence is not too close.

It is realistic to expect that Lords amendment No. 64 should be met. We must think about the quality of drinking water of those 11 million consumers. One million households are supplied with water with a nitrate content in excess of EC standards and nitrate protection zones have been identified in different parts of the country. Friends of the Earth has found breaches of pesticide limits in almost 300 water sources and samples. Those matters affect human health and should be of concern to us all.

There are ways of getting around those problems by improved technology and by overcoming the necessity to apply as much nitrogen as was applied in the past. We could produce new products less lethal than some of the pesticides which one used now or have only recently been banned. Solvents are also becoming a problem and evidence is emerging that they are accumulating in aquifers as well. Trace elements such as aluminium have become an increasing problem, with more than 40 areas of the country falling outside the EC standard. That is the challenge that would face any Government in cleaning up drinking water supplies. The House of Lords has set a reasonable target of 1993 by which the standards should be met.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : The Lords amendments deal with standards and the date by which it is possible to achieve them. Ninety per cent. of our rivers are in the top two standards. I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) on the matter. I must ask my hon. and learned Friend the Minister whether we always get our sense of priorities right. One or two rivers are still dirty, such as the Rother, which was mentioned often in Committee, and the Mersey, but at the same time the Thames has been much cleaned up. I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend has got matters the right way round. Many years ago, the House had to rise early for the summer recess because the Thames used to stink. Perhaps it might have been done the other way round.

I regret that the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) have still not been answered. She was asked how the previous Labour Government discharged their responsibilities for monitoring pollution by sewage treatment works when

Column 104

they kept no records of the adequacy of their performance. He also asked why the Labour Government kept details of the discharge consent applications secret from the public and refused to let the public participate in the process of granting them.

The Opposition are determined to show themselves as green, despite an appalling record that included 30 per cent. cuts in capital expenditure. Their concern did not extend to the Committee stage. If one examines the Committee proceedings, there is barely a mention of concern about these matters--at least, at the appropriate time. It seems that the Labour party wishes to do away with the House of Lords, but in this instance and many others, unless it had had that long stop to bring up these issues, they would not have been debated at all, despite all the time available. At least the Lords raised these issues.

Mr. Michael : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Committee stage was guillotined, truncating debate on many matters of great importance?

Mr. Knapman : I was a member of that Committee and I would not call 180 hours of debate truncated, although the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion.

Investment in water and sewerage works has always been delayed while they have been in the public sector. It is, after all, much easier to say that they have been there since Victorian times and that another year or two will not matter, so there is no need to bother. It is probably true to say that there has been some delay in those matters under Governments of all complexions. It is equally true to say that the rivers Rother and Mersey did not become polluted last week or in 1979. They have been polluted for many decades and, at long last, there is a chance that they will be cleaned and that drinking water quality will be improved.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister has acknowledged that vast sums need to be spent and he has never hidden the fact that water charges will need to rise above the rate of inflation to meet that expenditure. However, I remind their Lordships that passing an Act in this place does not take any practical steps towards achieving better standards. Our discussions do not take any practical steps towards modernising one sewage works, one water works, any old pipes or faulty stop cocks. It is little use to pass Acts if they cannot be complied with and passing Acts that cannot be complied with can only bring this place into disrepute. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right to say that these matters must be determined by what is practical.

I suspect that the true costs will be measured in many hundreds of millions of pounds. New works should be not only built, but designed to the highest standards, and in some cases planning permission will have to be obtained. Even if every firm of builders and civil engineers in this country were to set about such tasks--since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has said that an extra £12 billion will be spent on the roads, it is not a likely event--complying with the standards would take considerable time. The only chance of the standards being complied with is if private funds are introduced ; without them the works would not be undertaken. My hon. and learned Friend's proposals are in line with the EEC's drinking water directive. Hon. Members can see in the Library a letter from Carlo Ripa di Meana, which states :

"We had expressed concern about the provisions of clause 20(5)(b) and the scope it gave the Secretary of State to allow

Column 105

water companies to continue to supply water which did not meet all the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive. I am pleased to say that these discussions have now come to a satisfactory conclusion. The amendments which you have tabled to clause 20, along with the statement which I understand to have been made when introducing these amendments in the House of Lords, satisfy me that the UK Government intends to rectify any deficiencies in water supplies as quickly as possible taking certain practicalities into account."

That is the crux of the matter and that is the view of the European Commission. The letter is in the Library for all hon. Members to see.

9 pm

In Committee my hon. and learned Friend said that he was not seeking merely to comply with the European Commission's directive. At column 1045 he stated :

"The Commission has proposed the setting up of a committee of adaptation to review standards, which were drawn up without any proper toxicological basis. Indeed, some concentrations are standard across the board. The changes that the United Kingdom Government seek to achieve relate to the toxicological properties of different substances."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D ; 14 February 1989, c. 1045-46.]

We seek to achieve even higher standards than has been suggested by the European Commission.

Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that, as regards the wholesomeness of water, we propose a much tighter legal requirement than that proposed in the European directive? I am sure that the Bill contains a perfectly adequate mechanism for ensuring that the supplies that do not yet meet the requirements are brought up to standard as quickly as possible. I believe that my right hon. Friend has said that, but I did not catch exactly what he said. Will he confirm that that enforcement duty will be placed on the Secretary of State by clause 20?

With those points in mind, I say to my right hon. Friend, "Keep on being practical and at long last standards will be improved."

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : I am sorry that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) has left the Chamber because he referred to the bravery of the Secretary of State and that reminded me of the first occasion when I met the hon. Gentleman. He had just finished swimming in the sea off Sellafield after a major radiation leak. The personal bravery of the hon. Gentleman is therefore not in question, but obviously his judgment must be. However, I must admit that he is looking well and repeat that I am sorry that he is not in his place at the moment.

I shall concentrate on the issue of drinking water quality and compliance by 1993 or by another date agreed by the EEC. Tonight the Government are trying to overturn sensible and well-thought-out amendments that have been put forward by their Lordships. The Lords amendments propose that drinking water in the United Kingdom should conform to standards required by EC directive 80/778 by one of two dates : either 1 December 1993--on which we have tended to concentrate this evening--or by a date agreed mutually between the Secretary of State and the EEC Commission.

By their actions this evening it seems that the Government are saying that the EEC have told them that it is not prepared to wait any longer for the Government to take action and that they cannot come to a mutually agreed date before 1993. The inference is that the EEC is telling the Government to get on with compliance immediately, or at least quickly. If that is a wrong

Column 106

interpretation, I am sure that the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will tell us so. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what the EEC Commissioner has told him because the Government are refusing to put in the Library answers to our questions.

It is important that Britain's water is cleaned up. The directive was agreed in 1980. We have heard a lot about the Labour Government not agreeing to the directive, but we were not in power then. The directive became law in 1982 and its standards should have been achieved by 1985. What faith can we have in a Secretary of State who tells the House that at some time in the future the Government will comply with the directive when the Government have been breaking the law for nearly five years?

The Government have not been able to convince the EEC Commissioners or the people of this country. Indeed, a substantial minority of our population now has to put up with suspect water. It was only recently that Mr. Michael Carney, the secretary of the Water Authorities Association--who will probably be Sir Michael before too long--admitted that 10.8 million consumers are affected by water that does not meet the standards required by the EEC. Some of that water contains dangerous levels of lead, nitrates, aluminium and pesticides--a list to which we must now add protein, as I understand that people in the Thames area had to put up with worms coming through their taps. That situation was described yesterday evening on the television programme, "Spitting Image", on which a worm said that the only danger lay in drinking the water.

It is not only the Thames area that suffers. My own region, the North-west water authority region, has similar problems. According to a parliamentary answer of 7 February, areas whose water supplies currently failed to meet the standards set out in the European Community directive on the quality of drinking water included parts of Chester, parts of Congleton, all of Southport, Formby, the High Peak district, Stockport, Bolton, Tameside, Oldham, Rochdale, Rossendale, Burnley, Hyndburn, Carlisle district, excluding the city, the Eden district, Osmotherley, Urswick, Barrow in Furness, Lancaster, Ribble valley, Fylde district and Fleetwood. It would have been easier to name the areas that were getting satisfactory water. We have some terrible problems in the north-west.

On 5 June my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and I were in a valley called Mungrisdale in the Lake District. There we were in the most beautiful part of the country on a beautiful early summer's day, yet we realised that, according to EEC standards, the water in that area is not fit for villagers to drink. That was during the European election campaign. In Cumbria, as in the rest of the country, water privatisation was a matter of major political controversy and I believe that it was water privatisation that brought down the Conservative majority in Cumbria and North Lancashire from 23,000 to 2,000. When that swing is repeated at the general election, the Labour party will capture the town of Barrow and the city of Lancaster.

Mr. Pike : My hon. Friend has referred to the European constituency of Cumbria and North Lancashire. He will know that there was considerable concern among those living on the Fylde coast about the proposed long sewer outfall proposed at Rossall point. Having addressed a public meeting there, I feel sure that my hon. Friend's

Column 107

claim that concern about water was one of the reasons why we considerably reduced the Conservative's majority is correct.

Mr. Martlew : I agree with my hon. Friend, and I should not be surprised if we took Fylde at the next general election if the Government continue as they are.

No doubt Conservative Members would argue that the fact that there was a debate and falling out among leading Conservatives helped to lose the Conservatives the European elections. But it was not the washing of dirty linen in public that caused the problems ; it was the fact that they left the dirty water for the people to drink. The Prime Minister has been saying at the Royal show at Stoneleigh that the Government propose to introduce a food Bill to try to cope with the country's epidemic of food poisoning. Does she not realise that it is no good getting that part of the chain right if, when the food goes into people's kitchens, it is washed with polluted water? I hope that the Government will have the sense to accept the Lords amendments or, better still, decide that for the sake of the country and the Conservative party they should abandon the Bill altogether.

Mr. Nicholas Baker : I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) suggest that the Government were complacent in some way. It seems to me that the Bill shows precisely how seriously the Government take the water standards--indeed it introduces the most major programme this century to improve water standards. I still have not heard the answers to the horrible questions about the horrible record of the Labour Government. Perhaps the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael)--who is not very good at answering questions, as we discovered in Committee, although he is pleasant enough--will do his best to answer them later.

When we consider Lords amendments Nos. 62 to 64, we must distinguish between willing the end and willing the means. I fear that among those who have proposed 1993 as the date there might be a category of people who wish simply to advocate a futile gesture and the idea that we should simply include 1993 in the Bill and that, Parliament having spoken, it will somehow happen. That is not worth taking seriously.

Another category of people may want 1993 to be included in the Bill as a flabby obligation. Contrary to what we have heard from Opposition Members, such a date will cause legal difficulties. We have no right under EEC rules to introduce that date. What will be the effect of doing so? An EEC directive already exists on this matter. What will happen if we try to put our own EEC directive date into our legislation? Can we approve or gain EEC approval for parts of the water industry which comply with the 1980 directive if we include 1993? Those are questions which Opposition Members should consider seriously instead of being devoted to creating work for lawyers like me.

I fear that there is a third category of people who want to include that date in the Bill. If they get their way, including such a date would be a recipe for short cuts by the water industry. That would be very serious. It is wrong even to suggest including that date in the Bill if we do not will the means as well as the ends.

Column 108

My colleagues have referred to the practicalities of this provision. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning will not be surprised to learn that I am not prepared to support any measure which suggests that we can short-cut our planning procedures, soggy as they are. The House should not support such provisions. The projects required to implement the directive must be properly designed. That is an important step which has been taken in many parts of the water industry, but it remains to be taken in other areas.

We are told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that new technology in respect of nitrates and pesticides must be proven. It is no use laughing those matters off because the use of chemicals in water is highly dangerous and delicate. For example, I have been promoting efforts in my constituency to deal with scivalium posticatum --as Mr. Speaker will know, that is the Blandford fly, which has been causing serious problems in the rivers of my constituency. The answer to that problem apparently lies in the use of a chemical called bacillus thuringiensis, which may have serious implications. It must be tested, and that takes a great deal of time. Similarly, the problems with nitrates and pesticides, which we should have discussed at greater length in this debate, must be considered seriously. A deadline of 1993 might be acceptable if we could be absolutely certain that compliance could be achieved and all the practicalities dealt with. Otherwise, the present position is much more in favour of high standards and ensuring that the practicalities are observed.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) said that we should not let the Government off the hook. The Government are and will remain on the hook because of the existence of the directive. It could be argued that introducing the 1993 deadline would let the Government off the hook. I accept the present obligations, and I accept that, like every other EEC country, we are late in doing what should be done. It is up to the House to ensure that the Government do their job in keeping the momentum going. That is a far better way to proceed than trying to introduce an artificial date and ignoring the real practicalities involved in achieving the high standards that we all want.

9.15 pm

Mrs. Mahon : I am disgusted at the way in which the Government have consistently guillotined any debate on the Bill. If we had had a chance to debate it properly, we might have considered clause 60, which refers to private water supplies and is of particular interest to me. With the aid of a European Commission study contract, Calderdale environmental health department, which is in my local authority area, investigated the quality of water provided by private supplies in the district. It appears that 5,164 properties in Calderdale were using private supplies at the time of the study. That is 2.7 per cent. of the population. For obvious reasons, the Government were not very pleased with us for doing that study. The environmental health department in Calderdale found that many problems relating to the quality of water in private supplies were caused through a lack of maintenance, investment and knowledge. The parameters that were considered of relevance to the water quality study in Calderdale were the main ones that are applied everywhere. They are copper, lead, and microbiological

Column 109

parameters--total coliforms and faecal coliforms. The sampling programme was organised to ensure that at least one sample was obtained from each private supply. It was found that 91 per cent. of samples failed to comply with the directive. They even found a dead cow in one supply.

It is obvious that the quality of water from those supplies was well below the south-east standard. Our public water supply problems, particularly that of aluminium, are not nearly as bad as those of private supplies. The most effective method of achieving compliance with the directive would be to take private supplies into the public sector. Of course, with this Bill, it will not be possible to do that.

I should like the Minister to spend a couple of minutes explaining what will happen to private supplies. Who will pay for them? What will he do? Clause 60 tells us a little about his intentions for private supplies but, because the matter has not been debated in great detail, we are not sure what will happen. What programme will the Government bring forward to ensure that those 5,164 properties in Calderdale receive water that complies with EEC regulations?

Mr. Leigh : I will keep my remarks brief as other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. From a practical point of view, the more I listen to the debate the more I am convinced about the lack of wisdom in enshrining Community directives in our legislation. We have heard about the river Po-- [Interruption.] I ask the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) to allow me to continue my remarks. They say that Italians do not mind signing Community directives because they have no intention of carrying them out. They say that the Germans like to sign up because they have already done it. They say that Mediterranean countries do not mind signing them because they want us to pay for them. We are the only people with the problem. We will comply with and pay for Community directives. It was a Labour Government who spent five years getting the thing ready, and the Community directive sums up so much of what is wrong with the Community. There are great intentions but, as we have heard, not one country has succeeded in carrying out that directive nor, I suspect, will they. It is one thing to sign a directive for the sake of guidance, which is what we have done, but to enshrine it in legislation is something different.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh : No, because I shall draw my remarks to a rapid conclusion so that other hon. Members can contribute.

The debate has been going on for an hour and a half. Is it not extraordinary that, with the exception of my right hon. Friend who spoke first, we have heard nothing from Opposition Members about clauses 20, 52 and 60? That is part of the black propaganda that the Labour party is trying to put out about the Bill. It is ignoring the fact that the Bill will achieve environmental safeguards that we have never had. We have never had anything akin to clause 52. We have never laid down in legislation that we will insist on wholesome water. We have never had legislation such as is contained in clauses 60 and 65 in which we insist on quality standards, or clause 20, where we insist on enforcement. Undertakers will have to go to the Secretary of State and say how they intend to comply with the EEC

Column 110

directive. All those matters are contained in the Bill. Lord Hesketh made it clear in the other place that we intend to hold water undertakers to account.

So much of what we have heard does not relate to what is contained in the Bill-- [Interruption.] Of course, it is good politics. The Labour party is trying to convince the British people that we will privatise the water authorities so that profit will be put before people-- [Interruption.] They are all cheering. Opposition Members are rising to the fly cast over the Benches, as happened during 180 hours in Committee. As they try to mislead the British people into believing this nonsense, they are ignoring what is in the Bill. For the first time we are setting up a national environmental protection agency and enforcement procedures. We are taking practical and sensible steps to comply with the EEC directive. That is what we intend to do, and why we should resist this Lords amendment.

Mr. Morley : I have heard nothing in the debate to convince me that the Government cannot reach those standards by the date set down in the EEC directive. It is insulting to the Members in the other place to suggest that they have not taken into account the arguments and the practicalities of achieving those standards. I do not doubt that, because of the gross underinvestment in the water industry in the past 10 years under the Government, it will be difficult to achieve those standards. Under the last Labour Government, on average more money was invested in the industry than in the past 10 years. Conservative Members should hang their heads in shame at being party to such figures. It is a disgrace. Why is it that in the past 10 years the actual increase in water prices has been higher than the rate of inflation? Where has that profit gone? It does not seem to have been invested in the water industry, where it was needed. It seems to have gone to the Government as a form of taxation. It may be that to achieve the required water quality standards by 1993 enormous resources will have to be switched to the task. For example, there may have to be zero profits for those years while resources are directed towards ensuring that our drinking water quality standards meet the directive, but that is not possible in a privatised industry. That is why we have been arguing that those standards will not be achieved by privatisation, because profits will always be put first. That is the main criterion.

I have not heard anyone, apart from the Government and the Water Authorities Association, say that those standards cannot be met. Of course, all the chairmen of those authorities have been appointed by the Government and they stand to do very nicely out of privatisation, as chairmen of other former public industries and public service sectors have done. I do not believe that the association's letter to every Member of Parliament has any credibility because its members have a completely vested interest. It is trying to defend the political direction of those who put the chairmen where they are today and should be disregarded.

The important issue is that my constituents should be assured that problems such as high nitrate levels in the water supply will be tackled by the Government. We know that for any progress to be made in tackling nitrate levels, the Government have to be dragged along, kicking and screaming, by the EEC. That had to happen before they were prepared to do anything at all. I want to see action in tackling water supply standards and eradicating pesticides

Column 111

in our water supply. That is why we need a target date. A directive was agreed in 1980, but the Government know that if they try to meet the required standards they will not attract investors to buy the water authorities. They are placing their ideology of selling off the water authorities into the private sector before quality standards and the safety of our people.

Mr. Raffan : I am glad that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has returned to the Chamber. I wanted to say to her face that her opening speech in this debate was the most disreputable that I have ever heard throughout our consideration of the Bill, whether in Committee or in the Chamber. She said, as a statement of fact, that the Government do not care at all about the quality of drinking water. She contended that the Government care only about selling off the water authorities.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : I stand by that.

Mr. Raffan : Opposition Members dance to the bait that is thrown to them. The hon. Lady presented a complete distortion of the truth, and she knows it.

Like the hon. Member for Dewsbury, I was a member of the Committee which considered the Bill. I was asked at one stage to comment on a radio interview that she had given. She did not know that that would happen. The interview that she gave bore no relation to anything set out in the Bill. She has distorted the truth again this evening in impugning the Government's motives. The Government have incorporated the drinking water directive in legislation for the first time and made it a criminal offence to supply drinking water that is unfit for human consumption. Under the Government, the water authorities are embarking on a massive capital spending programme of £1 billion to improve water infrastructure and thus water quality.

This evening we saw the hon. Lady draw from her handbag the scruffy piece of paper that she brought out every so often in Committee. She prefers to give average spending figures for obvious reasons. The fact is that the Labour Government cut capital spending on water infrastructure by 30 per cent. in the last three years they were in power. The hon. Lady cannot get away from that.

Mrs. Taylor : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raffan : I will give way in a moment. I have not finished yet. However many times the hon. Lady produces that scruffy piece of paper from her handbag, she cannot get away from the fact that the Labour Government cut capital spending in the last three years they were in office.

Mrs. Taylor rose--

Mr. Raffan : I have not finished yet. I ask the hon. Lady to restrain herself. She had a big bite of the cake earlier. She must give others a chance to contribute to the debate. Some of us want to talk about facts rather than fiction.

The Government are presiding over a massive capital spending programme. In an extremely eloquent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) described the process that we are undertaking as moving the water industry from the public sector, where it has been loosely constrained and loosely regulated, into the private

Column 112

sector, where it will be subject to much tighter regulation and monitoring than ever before. That is a fact. Indeed, some Opposition Members have today acknowledged that with the setting up of the National Rivers Authority there will be much tighter control and regulation producing significant environmental advances.

Mrs. Taylor : Will the hon. Gentleman help the House by defining what he regards as a "massive capital programme"? Is he aware that the Government's investment programme from 1979 to 1986 has been lower--for the most part, much lower--than even the worst years under the Labour Government? It took seven years to get back to the Labour Government's worst year. That says a great deal about the problems created by the lack of investment under this Government.

9.30 pm

Mr. Raffan : That is a distortion. The more the hon. Lady is challenged, the more she distorts.

I am glad that Welsh Members are present as they can confirm that there has been almost a doubling of capital expenditure by the Welsh water authority- -

Mr. Win Griffiths : It was needed.

Mr. Raffan : It was desperately needed because of the years of neglect under the Labour Government. The Welsh water authority has the longest--

Mr. Griffiths rose

Mr Raffan : I am not giving way. I am finishing a sentence. I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because he, too, has already had a bite of the cake. He should remain quiet and let me make my point. I am well aware that what I am saying is unpalatable to the Opposition. It is fit for human consumption, but I am not sure that it is fit for the Opposition consumption. After all, they do not like facts--they have been dealing in fiction all night. The fact is that the Government have massively increased public spending by 50 per cent. since they came to power and have a programme stretching yearsahead--

Mr. Griffiths rose--

Mr. Raffan : I have made it clear that I will not give way again-- [Interruption.] I was generous in giving way earlier--[ Hon. Members :--"Give way."] All right, I will give way, but I do not want to take up too much time.

Mr Griffiths : The hon. Gentleman claims to have close knowledge of the Welsh water authority. If so, he must know that one of the major arguments put forward by its chairman for accepting privatisation is that it will release him from the constraints of capital spending imposed by the Government--a view that he has expressed many times.

Mr. Raffan : It is not that at all. The hon. Gentleman is wrong again. I have talked often to Mr. John Elfed Jones, the chairman of the Welsh water authority, who wants to be released from the possible nightmare --although it is a fantasy--of a future Labour Government. He does not want a repeat of what happened in the last three years the Labour party was in power. Because the Labour Government so feared electoral unpopularity, they took the easy way out and cut capital rather than current spending when they had to crawl, humiliated, to the

Column 113

International Monetary Fund in 1976. The chairman of the Welsh Water Authority knows the position. He knows that he will be able to borrow more money, more cheaply on the money market as a result of the Bill and thus accelerate the authority's capital programme.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : What about the Conservatives' Euro-seats?

Mr. Raffan : The hon. Lady brings in Euro-seats as a distraction. I do not remember the Labour candidate in north Wales mentioning the Bill. Indeed, he did not mention much to do with Europe at all. I doubt whether he even knew that the European drinking water directive existed.

As usual, I wish to be constructive, and in the few minutes remaining to me I shall refer to some of the points to which the hon. Lady failed to respond in my right hon. Friend's opening speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an important point about the practical problems of specific dates due to the varying programmes for capital works. We cannot expect all of them to be completed or finalised at the same time. My right hon. Friend mentioned the possible disruption of water supplies which would occur if there were an acceleration of the programmes. The hon. Lady did not respond to that point.

Another important point is what has been referred to as dynamic changes. That refers to the long-term leaking of nitrates, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), the introduction of new herbicides and pesticides and the problems that they will create. Water supplies which currently comply with the directive might not comply in future due to the long-term leaking of nitrates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey pointed out that no EEC country complies with the directive--all are guilty of infringements except Portugal, which has had an extension of the time in which it has to comply. Most water suppliers in this country comply with the health-related aspects of the directive. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said, of the 66 requirements in the directive most are related to appearance and turbidity and are not health-related. We are breaching the directive mainly on appearance and turbidity. The drinking water of the 11 million people touted around by the Opposition--the lingering remnants of the SLD members and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths)--is not unsafe, but merely not up to standard terms of appearance and turbidity. Yet the Opposition toss around a figure of 11 million people's health being adversely affected by their drinking water. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Win Griffiths : I did not say that.

Mr. Raffan : That was the clear inference to be drawn from Opposition speeches. I listened very carefully, as I always do, to the hon. Members for Bridgend and for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey).

Mr. Griffiths : Then the hon. Gentleman got it wrong again.

Mr. Raffan : From the point of view of public health, the directives' key sections concern bacteria and toxic substances. Water in England and Wales has always enjoyed very high standards of bacteriological purity.

Column 114

There remain only three very small water supplies which are adversely affected in that regard, and they are being quickly dealt with.

The Government propose to incorporate in their regulations under the Bill tighter standards governing lead than exist in the directive and are requiring water authorities to do even more by introducing additives in water treatment to reduce lead content. Nitrate pollution is probably the trickiest area, and the main problem is of long-term leakage of nitrate into the water supply as a result of the use of fertilisers and intensive farming. I do not understand why Labour Members go on about static dates for compliance with the Community directive when maintaining quality is a continuing process which will not end in 1993 or 1995. There may be areas where water supplies are currently free of nitrates but may be adversely affected in the future. Much research is being undertaken by water authorities in respect of denitrification processes, some of which are very complicated. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) made an important point about the care that must be taken when adding chemicals to the water supply. This is particularly true when dealing with nitrates. The Government's proposals for the creation of water protection zones and nitrate-sensitive areas must be considered further. The Government are making considerable progress, but solutions cannot be conjured up overnight.

Aluminium pollution is constantly mentioned by Opposition Members, although it is pure scaremongering. They fail to point out that a cup of tea contains 20 to 200 times as much aluminium as the water used to make it.

Throughout the progress of the Bill, and particularly today, the Opposition have distorted the truth. The Government, through the effective provisions of the Bill--by the establishment of the National Rivers Authority, and by incorporating the Community directive into the legislation--are making clear their determination to improve the quality of our water supplies. That is something that a Labour Government never did, even when they had the chance to do so.

Mr. Michael : It is always difficult to deal with the manifest distortions introduced by the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan), and as water was such a major issue in the recent European Parliament election in north Wales I am surprised that his remarks should be so far-reaching. I shall first correct the hon. Gentleman's remarks concerning Welsh Water. We know only of an apologetic plea by Welsh Water that it would be free from the constraints of the Conservative Government in terms of investment by the private sector, but Welsh Water's main objective was clearly set out in a letter to all its employees from its chairman, Mr. John Elfed Jones. It stated : "You should know that it is the unanimous opinion of the Board that the interests of both consumers and the employees of Welsh Water are best served by NOT proceeding with privatisation of the Welsh Water Authority."

His letter concluded :

"I very much hope that the Government will heed the views of the Board of Welsh Water and that privatisation will not take place."

Mr. Raffan : When was it dated?

Next Section

  Home Page