Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Michael : Mr. Jones was later somewhat pressurised by Ministers, but that letter expressed the unanimous view

Column 115

of the board of Welsh Water-- [Interruption.] --and shouting by Conservative Members will not change the truth of that.

The debate has inevitably been narrow in its scope, but the concerns are basic and of major importance. As has happened with monotonous consistency during the passage of this outrageous Bill, the Government failed to make their case, appeared appallingly complacent, and were made to look ridiculous in discussing the subject of water quality. To describe the Bill as a consumer measure is as ludicrous as calling Count Dracula a dependable agent of public health. To claim that the Bill has been brought in specially to improve water quality is even dafter. Labour Members are seeking to ensure decent standards of water quality and to present practical protection measures. As with so many other aspects of the Bill, the Secretary of State can defend the Government's position only by weaving a web of byzantine complexity, cross-referring clauses and asking us to put our trust in the intentions of Ministers. Conservative Back-Bench Members have given credit to the Labour Government's work over five years, but have allowed little for the 10 years of neglect that followed and the failure to implement the standards to which we have referred. Welsh Water came out against privatisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has given the facts about the Government's failure until 1986 to return to even the lowest level of investment made by the Labour Government. Clauses 52 and 20, cited in defence of the Government's measure, mean little without objective and public scrutiny. All the protections in the Bill are flawed without that.

On the evidence of the past 10 years, to trust Ministers would be foolhardy. Lords amendment No. 49 is welcome because it tightens the original wording, which would have imposed little or no obligation on the Secretary of State or the director general to take any serious action to enforce standards. We want to ensure proper monitoring of water quality, and it is sad to see that it is now the EC to which we must turn for any real safeguards and any serious intention to protect the public.

I have a feeling that a reading of Conservative Members' contributions to the debate will not reassure Commissioner Ripa di Meana about the Government's intentions. That is why our amendment to Lords amendment No. 49 is so important. Under our amendment, technical assessors would have an independent role and the EC could monitor properly. Technical reports about contraventions would have to be sent to the EC within two weeks of their coming to knowledge ; problems would be brought into the open instead of being buried in bureaucracy or covered up by a Conservative Minister.

The ministerial reply that I received in response to questions to the Secretary of State for Wales on current derogation applications showed an appalling lack of knowledge of or interest in the matter. Our basic point is that if there is to be a process of letting companies off in return for investment schemes, it should be open to scrutiny and subject to objective tests. That is particularly important in view of other amendments that the Secretary of State wants to make today. If he has his way, he will delete the word "wholesome".

Column 116

The fact that the Secretary of State does not want companies to be obliged to supply people with wholesome water brings home just how much we need European Commission protection. He appears not to care what quality of water comes through the tap, but we and the British public care, and we are trying to build in some protections. Incidentally, if the Secretary of State thinks it impractical to emphasise the word "wholesome", he should note that precisely that word is used in the famous water advertisements to describe quality and to define what people expect, so the water authorities must know what it means. In its version, Welsh Water's claim is

"Water we send your way is regularly tested to ensure it is wholesome."

According to the Secretary of State, that is meaningless. I would prefer to listen to Welsh Water in this context. To delete the word "wholesome" will hardly reassure independent observers who share our justifiable fears about what the Government are up to.

Personally, I am delighted at the success of the water authorities' advertising campaign, although the result has not been quite what the Government or the water authorities intended. Millions of pounds have been spent on the campaign to soften up the British public for the great water sell-off, but the result is that the public are confirmed in their belief that water is of value, and water quality so important that the industry should not be sold off. Their reasons are many, but the simple question of what comes out of the tap takes pride of place--followed by environmental concerns and worry over prices, river quality, land use and so forth.

Among the advertisements published by Welsh Water, my personal favourite is the one that shows a rustic well miles from anyone's home and tells us that we have come a long way since Victorian times. Too right we have, especially in terms of water quality. In Victorian times the industry was in private hands, and water quality was so bad that disease was rife in our towns and cities. Today 79 per cent. of the population firmly oppose the Secretary of State and the water sell-off. My bet is that nearly 100 per cent. of the population firmly oppose the Government's bid to return to Victorian values, that nearly 100 per cent. of the population agree with our plea for safeguards and objective, open monitoring and that nearly 100 per cent. of the population support what we are trying to do in the amendments.

The City also rejects the Government's plans. Water quality is one of the factors that is putting off financiers. The City believes that privatisation should be put off until after water has been brought up to the EC standard, yet the Government are trying to put off the day of reckoning. They do not want to write in the 1993 deadline--itself a compromise--by which date Britain should reach European drinking water standards. The Secretary of State admits that those standards should have been met by 1985. That is why the City, like the public, are suspicious of the Secretary of State's motives in rejecting the Lords amendment.

9.45 pm

How can Ministers press on and ignore water quality problems and the helpful amendments that have been tabled at a time when the Director of Public Prosecutions is in the latter stages of considering criminal charges following the Camelford incident, when even public bodies have been shown to have misled the public and covered up

Column 117

the facts--something that is bound to be an even greater danger when water is in private hands, since company regulations require shareholders' interests and profits to take priority-- and when water authorities are currently and variously being challenged over EC levels of aluminium, lead, iron and manganese? Furthermore, local authority power will be diminished by the Bill. The British Government are defying the European Community over the timetable for improving water standards and may be taken to court by it. Microbiologists and others with direct experience of the water industry are warning the British people and the Secretary of State of the need for the independent monitoring of drinking water quality. The Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment are seen to be headed by Ministers who offer fine words but who lack the commitment to guarantee a supply of drinking water that is of a high and dependable quality.

The Bill is fatally flawed. Information that is technically in the public domain is now inaccessible to public or professional scrutiny and it will be even less accessible to consumers in the future. The Government have not told us--perhaps the Secretary of State will do so now--whether we are to have a locally based system of technical assessors and whether such a service will be provided with guaranteed resources and allowed to be independent. According to the Bill, water quality is not in the hands of the director general. His role is an economic one. Water quality is in the hands of the Secretary of State. Given his complacency earlier tonight, that will not reassure the public.

The Ministers involved want us to trust them. We do not, nor do the public at large. The Bill has been described by a senior Welsh Tory Back-Bench Member as deservedly unpopular. I hope that he and other Conservative Members who realise that the Government have got it wrong will join us in the Lobby and give some protection to the public on the key issue of water quality.

Mr. Ridley : With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, may I say that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) is fatally flawed? If he looks at clause 52 he will find that it states specifically that there will be a duty to supply wholesome water. That duty remains under any amendments on the Amendment Paper. I agree that he mentioned the Opposition amendment, but again his approach to it was fatally flawed. The need for an independent assessor is recognised elsewhere in the Bill, but the hon. Gentleman seems not to have noticed it. There will, therefore, be an independent assessor. If the Commission wants any information from the Government, it will write and ask for it. There is no need, therefore, for the amendment. The hon. Gentleman's understanding of what is provided for in the Bill is clearly inadequate.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) questioned whether the Government's amendments to clause 20 had convinced and satisfied the Commission. She is quite wrong about that.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ridley : No. I have very little time and I must get on. I can do no better than quote the Select Committee on the cuts that the Labour Government made in water investment.

Column 118

"There are a number of reasons why water authority effluence falls short of the present consent standards. The most immediate reason is because from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s there was a steady drop in investment by the water authority in sewerage and sewage disposal."

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and others signed the Select Committee report.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury was quite wrong when she said that the Labour Government's worst year of investment was better than the Tory average. Labour's worst year of investment was worse than the worst year of Tory investment, so the hon. Lady was absolutely wrong. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) fails to understand that the underinvestment by the Labour Government is the problem that we all have to face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) suggested that the Bill had the year 1995 as the date for total compliance by the industry with the water directive. The Bill includes no date by which total compliance is to be achieved. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) asked me to confirm that I have the duty to enforce compliance, even for temporary waivers under clause 50. That is indeed the case. I have that duty and I shall certainly exercise it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) was absolutely right when he said that it would probably be illegal to put the date 1993 into the Bill because we had to comply by 1985. The House could find itself brought before the European Court of Justice, of which the Opposition are so inordinately fond, because they had succeeded in getting the amendment into the Bill. They are advocating that the House should legislate in total contradiction with European law.

Mr. Morgan : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ridley : No, I shall not give way.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffths) said that it was as if we had suddenly discovered a new directive. He is right. It is a new directive. The directive that the Labour party and the Government negotiated and that was brought to a conclusion in 1980 was based on annual average compliance. That is what every nation in Europe thought. That is what the Labour party and the Conservative party thought it said. In 1987 the Commission gave it as its opinion, ex cathedra, that it was based on 100 per cent. compliance. That is what changed that game. In 1987 we were just about complying until the goal posts were moved. That is why it was a totally new game. The hon. Member for Bridgend does not seem to realise that.

Finally, we come to the question whether it is correct that the standards should be applied to all the parameters in the directive. I make no secret of the fact that I hope that there will be some relaxation because some of the standards in the directive are ridiculous, extravagant and unnecessary. I believe that it is absurd to put expensive requirements on us in relation to the colour and taste of water. There is no health risk. Peaty water in the north of England is not something to be ashamed of. It is absolutely absurd to insist on those standards. The standard for nitrate is higher than it need be for purely health reasons. I hope that we can persuade the Commission to relax the standards. Of course we cannot do that unilaterally. We shall abide by the standards, but it would be strange if the

Column 119

Opposition did not realise that there has to be some considered judgment as to whether they are the right standards.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) has left the Chamber, so I need not reply to her, but clauses 57 to 59 meet her point about private water supplies, and of course the directive will apply to them.

The Labour party fails to understand that there are about 60 parameters in the directive. All drinking water in this country is wholesome and fit to drink, but of the parameters cited in the directive as being dangerous to health, we shall be in compliance with that for lead within the next few months. It will probably take about two years to comply with microbiological factors, and about two or three years to comply with the directive on nitrates. However, it might take a little longer in a few areas where denitrification plants will be necessary. We should have all the aluminium cleaned up at treatment works in two or three years, but natural aluminium is not mentioned in the directive. All the measures that matter will be completed well before 1993. Colour, iron and manganese traces in the water may take much longer because the entire pipe network will have to be replaced. If the hon. Member for Dewsbury thinks that we can do that by 1993, she should think again.

I agree with my hon. Friends about the scandalous way in which the Labour party has sought to knock the health standards of this country for short- term, cheap political advantage, and I invite the House to reject amendment (a).

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 45 to 48 agreed to.

Lords amendment : No. 49, in page 21, leave out lines 45 to 47. Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment, amendment (a), 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".'.-- [Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made :--

The House divided : Ayes 197, Noes 308.

Division No. 274] [9.56 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Adams, Allen (Paisley N)

Allen, Graham

Anderson, Donald

Archer, Rt Hon Peter

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashley, Rt Hon Jack

Ashton, Joe

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)

Battle, John

Beaumont-Dark, Anthony

Beckett, Margaret

Beith, A. J.

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)

Bermingham, Gerald

Bidwell, Sydney

Blunkett, David

Boateng, Paul

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)

Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)

Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Buckley, George J.

Caborn, Richard

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Cartwright, John

Clark, Dr David (S Shields)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clay, Bob

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Column 120

Cohen, Harry

Cook, Frank (Stockton N)

Cook, Robin (Livingston)

Cousins, Jim

Cox, Tom

Crowther, Stan

Cryer, Bob

Cunningham, Dr John

Dalyell, Tam

Darling, Alistair

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)

Dewar, Donald

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Doran, Frank

Dunnachie, Jimmy

Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth

Eastham, Ken

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)

Fisher, Mark

Flannery, Martin

Flynn, Paul

Foot, Rt Hon Michael

Foster, Derek

Foulkes, George

Fraser, John

Fyfe, Maria

Galloway, George

Garrett, John (Norwich South)

Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Golding, Mrs Llin

Gordon, Mildred

Gould, Bryan

Graham, Thomas

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Grocott, Bruce

Harman, Ms Harriet

Henderson, Doug

Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)

Hood, Jimmy

Howarth, George (Knowsley N)

Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)

Howells, Geraint

Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Hoyle, Doug

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)

Hughes, Roy (Newport E)

Ingram, Adam

Janner, Greville

Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)

Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald

Kennedy, Charles

Kirkwood, Archy

Leadbitter, Ted

Lestor, Joan (Eccles)

Livingstone, Ken

Livsey, Richard

Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)

Lofthouse, Geoffrey

McAllion, John

McAvoy, Thomas

McCartney, Ian

Macdonald, Calum A.

McFall, John

McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)

McKelvey, William

McLeish, Henry

Maclennan, Robert

McWilliam, John

Madden, Max

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Marek, Dr John

Marshall, David (Shettleston)

Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)

Martlew, Eric

Maxton, John

Meacher, Michael

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)

Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)

Moonie, Dr Lewis

Morgan, Rhodri

Morley, Elliott

Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)

Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Mudd, David

Mullin, Chris

Murphy, Paul

Nellist, Dave

Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon

O'Brien, William

O'Neill, Martin

Orme, Rt Hon Stanley

Owen, Rt Hon Dr David

Pendry, Tom

Pike, Peter L.

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Prescott, John

Quin, Ms Joyce

Radice, Giles

Randall, Stuart

Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn

Reid, Dr John

Richardson, Jo

Roberts, Allan (Bootle)

Robertson, George

Rogers, Allan

Rooker, Jeff

Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)

Rowlands, Ted

Ruddock, Joan

Sedgemore, Brian

Sheerman, Barry

Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert

Shore, Rt Hon Peter

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)

Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)

Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)

Snape, Peter

Soley, Clive

Spearing, Nigel

Steel, Rt Hon David

Steinberg, Gerry

Stott, Roger

Strang, Gavin

Straw, Jack

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Turner, Dennis

Vaz, Keith

Wall, Pat

Wallace, James

Walley, Joan

Wardell, Gareth (Gower)

Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)

Wigley, Dafydd

Williams, Rt Hon Alan

Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)

Wilson, Brian

Winnick, David

Wise, Mrs Audrey

Next Section

  Home Page