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Column 179motion to disagree, together with Government amendments (a), (b) and (c) in lieu thereof, Lords amendment No. 240 and the Government motion to disagree with the amendment.
Mr. Howard : Schedule 18 sets out the powers under which the authority and water and sewerage undertakers are able to lay and repair pipes and carry out associated works. They are generally able to exercise their pipe-laying powers after serving reasonable notice on the owner and occupier of the land.
The purpose of amendments Nos. 239 and 240 is to require the authority and undertakers generally to seek the consent of the owner and occupier of the land before exercising the powers. The power to lay pipes after serving reasonable notice would be limited to cases of emergency, cases where the undertaker is complying with a requisition to provide a main or sewer and cases where the Secretary of State determines that it would be exceptionally difficult to obtain the consent of every owner and occupier concerned. The overall effect of those amendments would be severely to inhibit the ability of undertakers to meet effectively the requirements placed on them to provide the water and sewerage services that are essential to public health.
While there may seem to be a superficial reasonableness about the amendments, in practice they would impose extremely cumbersome arrangements on the Secretary of State and undertakers, which would to a large extent defeat the whole object of the pipe-laying powers. Far from merely limiting those powers in a sensible way, the amendments would in fact undermine them.
It is self-evident that imposing a requirement to obtain the consent of every landowner and every occupier will cause delay. Whether it is a case involving many landowners and occupiers along the route or only a few, negotiations can be protracted as each person affected attempts to persuade the undertaker to go elsewhere, to delay entry or to give greater compensation or some other advantage over everyone else. Where negotiations break down, the amendments provide for the Secretary of State to determine whether consent is being unreasonably withheld. That would be a quasi- judicial process which is bound to take some months to determine, particularly if the person withholding the consent does not co-operate with the process or if local inquiries are involved. The amendments provide for some exceptions. They provide for the Secretary of State to be able to determine whether it would be exceptionally difficult to obtain within a reasonable time the consent of every owner and occupier concerned. But that would be a very difficult jurisdiction for the Secretary of State to exercise. There would have to be strong evidence that an attempt to use the normal consent procedure would involve exceptional difficulty beyond the normal length of those protracted processes. The Secretary of State would need to consider representations from the parties involved, perhaps to take independent advice or even to hold a local inquiry. There would then of course be the possibility of further delay by dissatisfied parties seeking to challenge the Secretary of State's decision by way of judicial review.
Column 1805.15 pm
The amendments are particularly unreasonable when considered in the context of our European Community obligations. On the one hand, Opposition Members urge us to comply with those obligations, in particular the drinking water directive, to an impracticable time scale, while on the other they support moves to remove from the Bill the very powers that water and sewerage undertakers will need to meet those commitments. If the operational capabilities of water and sewerage undertakers are constrained in the way proposed by the amendments, there is certain to be a considerable deterioration in the pace at which we can expect to see the improvements that we all want in the quality of our drinking water and standards of our bathing beaches.
I know that in retaining the existing powers of water authorities to lay pipes on notice, we would be preserving the unique position of the water industry as the only public utility with such powers. The water industry can, however, properly be regarded in a different context from other utilities. Satisfactory water supply and sewerage arrangements are essential to public health. The undertakers need those powers to be able to carry out the major improvement programmes necessary to meet the European Community requirements on public water supplies and to ensure the improvement in the cleanliness of our beaches--matters which we are constantly told should be taken forward more rapidly. The water industry does not generally have the operational advantages of other utilities. The route of water and sewer pipes is often determined by the need for gravitational flows, which is a restriction that does not apply elsewhere.
I appreciate that some landowners are dissatisfied with the levels of compensation paid in those cases. The Bill provides for full and fair compensation to be paid in cases where the value of the land is depreciated or loss or damage is caused as a result of the exercise of pipe-laying powers. The grounds on which compensation is paid following the exercise of those powers are being brought into line with the compensation provisions which apply to other utilities. Landowners affected by the exercise of those powers by the water industry will therefore be able to claim compensation on the same grounds as those affected by similar operations of other utilities. The Bill also provides for disputes over the amount of compensation to be referred to the Lands Tribunal.
I am well aware of the scope that those powers offer for arbitrary behaviour on the part of undertakers. I know that there have been occasions in the past when landowners have suffered from unreasonable actions. It is for those reasons that we have taken significant steps to protect the interests of landowners.
First, the Bill provides for the powers to be subject to a statutory code of practice to be submitted by the undertakers to the Secretary of State for approval. Unlike the voluntary codes which exist in some water authorities, the codes will be mandatory and the powers will be subject to the oversight of the director general. The Department has produced a model code, on which the statutory codes will be based, in consultation with the water industry and landowning interests. The code will cover all aspects of the pipe-laying process. In particular, it will contain provisions requiring undertakers to provide information to owners and occupiers about the works, to plan the works to cause the minimum inconvenience to landowners and to restore the land, once the work is complete, to its
Column 181original condition. Undertakers will be required to act in a reasonable way at all times. I believe the model code strikes the right balance between the need to ensure that landowning interests are protected and the reasonable needs of undertakers.
Mr. Howard : In the Bill we do not propose any change to the existing arrangements relating to interest. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have separately issued a consultation document that deals with the payment of interest on compensation in compulsory purchase cases. We shall be announcing the results of that compensation exercise in due course.
The second step we have taken is to provide in clause 156 for the director general to direct an undertaker to make a payment to the complainant, up to a maximum of £1,000--which we propose should be increased to £5,000--if he is satisfied that an undertaker has failed to consult the owner and occupier before or during pipe-laying, or by acting unreasonably has caused them to suffer loss or damage or to be inconvenienced. This provision will help to ensure that undertakers act reasonably when exercising their powers.
Finally, my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside introduced in the other place a new requirement on undertakers. Lords amendment No. 161 requires undertakers to alter or remove a pipe in response to a reasonable request from a person with an interest in the land where the pipe is installed, or on adjacent land. There will be recourse to the director general in cases where a person considers that an undertaker has refused to comply with a reasonable request to move a pipe. An undertaker will be able to recover from the person the expenses it reasonably incurs in carrying out the works. That will go a long way to ensuring that the presence of undertakers' pipes on private land does not unreasonably hinder any subsequent development of that land.
I know that, in accepting amendments Nos. 238 and 240, the other place was greatly concerned about the powers that will be available to the water industry and the scope they offer for inconsiderate behaviour. The powers are, however, essential for operational, and more importantly public health, reasons. Knowing the strength of feeling on this issue, I have given very serious consideration to the views expressed in both Houses when the issue has been debated. With the leave of the House, I propose to move the amendments on the marshalled list in lieu of Lords amendment No. 239, which will improve still further the protection of the interest of landowners provided in the Bill, while at the same time preserving those essential powers.
The amendments provide that, when exercising their powers in order to lay new pipes, undertakers will be required to give a minimum of three months' notice. A minimum of 42 days notice would be required in the case of replacement or repair of existing pipes. The only exceptions to those arrangements would be cases of emergency and the exercise of the powers in response to a requisition to provide a main or sewer or a request to provide a service pipe when the undertaker is required to comply within a statutory time limit. Those notice periods
Column 182are intended to ensure that the examples of the exercise of the powers following an unreasonably short period of notice that have concerned Members of both Houses are not repeated.
The amendments also contain a further measure designed to ensure reasonable behaviour by undertakers. It provides for the maximum payment which the director general can direct an undertaker to make to a complainant under clause 156 to be increased from £1,000 to £5, 000.
Finally, the amendments provide for the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide for advance payment of compensation in respect of the exercise of the powers. I can give the House an undertaking that the regulations will be made in time to come into force on transfer date. They will follow the precedent of section 52 of the Land Compensation Act 1973 and provide for advance payments of 90 per cent. of the agreed amount of compensation or 90 per cent. of the compensation as estimated by the undertaker. The advance payment will be made not later than three months after such a payment is requested.
The provisions contained in these amendments, together with those in the code of practice, will fully meet the concerns of the other place. The Bill will specify the periods of notice that an undertaker must give before entering land, and the undertaker will be required by the code of practice to provide information to the owner and occupier about the purpose of the works, including the nature, route and timing of works. Those requirements, combined with the provisions in clause 156 for the director general to direct an undertaker to make a payment, now up to £5,000, in cases where the undertaker has failed to consult a complainant or has acted unreasonably in exercising the powers will, I believe, deal extremely effectively with the legitimate concerns of landowners.
The provisions brought forward in these amendments have the agreement of the movers of Lords amendments Nos. 239 and 240 in the other place. I therefore urge hon. Members to disagree with the Lords in amendments 239 and 240. They would not only impose a severe constraint on the ability of undertakers to perform their statutory duties, including those to meet EC obligations, but in putting pressure on undertakers to agree, in effect, ransom payments to landowners would be to the detriment of consumers generally. The House should also disagree with amendment No. 238 since, as a consequence of the amendments we are now moving, it is unnecessary. I recommend to the House amendments on the marshalled list in lieu of Lords amendment No. 239, which will improve the protection afforded to landowners while preserving the powers of undertakers to meet their statutory obligations. I commend them to the House. Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 238 disagreed to.
Lords amendment No. 239 disagreed to.
Amendment made in lieu of Lords amendment No. 239 : (a), in page 156, line 26, leave out £1,000' and insert £5,000'.
Amendment made in lieu of Lords amendment No. 239 : (b), in page 267, leave out lines 11 to 20 and insert
only after reasonable notice of the proposed exercise of the power has been given to the owner and to the occupier of the land where the power is to be exercised.
(5) Subject to sub-paragraph (6) below, in relation to any exercise of the powers conferred by this paragraph for the purpose of laying or altering a relevant pipe, the minimum period that is capable of constituting reasonable notice for the purposes of sub-paragraph (4) above shall be deemed--
(a) where the power is exercised for the purpose of laying a relevant pipe otherwise than in substitution for an existing pipe of the same description, to be three months ; and
(b) where the power is exercised for the purpose of altering an existing pipe, to be forty-two days.
(6) Sub-paragraph (5) above shall not apply in the case of any notice given within the period of one year beginning with the transfer date or in the case of any notice given with respect to the exercise of any power in an emergency or for the purpose of-- (
(a) laying or altering a service pipe ; or
(b) complying with a duty imposed under section 40 or 70 of this Act.'.
Amendment made in lieu of Lords amendment No. 239 : (c), in page 268, line 38, at end insert--
( ) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision requiring the Authority or any water undertaker or sewerage undertaker, where it is proposing or has begun to exercise any power conferred by virtue of paragraph 4 or 5 above in a prescribed case, to make advance payments on account of compensation that will become payable in respect of the exercise of that power.'.
Lords amendment No. 240 disagreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 241 to 266, 268 to 276 and 278 to 311 agreed to. [Some with Special Entry.]
Lords amendment : No. 312, in page 351, line 13, leave out sub-paragraph (6).
Lords amendment No. 320, in page 356, line 48, at end insert-- "(4) Where the rights and liabilities in respect of any such consent are transferred to a water authority's successor company in accordance with a scheme under Schedule 2 to this Act and the conditions of that consent include one or more of the following, that is to say-- (
(a) a condition that requires that authority to take samples of any matter discharged ;
(b) a condition that requires that authority to furnish any person with information about samples taken by that authority ; or (
(c) a condition that is contravened where there is a failure by more than a specified number of samples taken by that authority to satisfy specified requirements,
then any such condition as is mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) above shall cease to have effect on the transfer date and any such condition as is mentioned in paragraph (c) above shall have effect on and after that date as if any samples taken on behalf of the Authority in exercise, at any time on or after that date, of a power conferred by this Act, but no other samples, were the samples falling to be taken into account for the purposes of that condition."
Column 184Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 320, in line 13, leave out from in' to end of line 19 and insert
those paragraphs shall have effect on and after the transfer date in the same manner as before that date, except that any reference to samples taken by that authority shall be taken to mean samples taken by the National Rivers Authority insofar as it refers to samples taken after the transfer date.'.
Lords amendment No. 323.
Mr. Howard : In speaking to Lords amendment No. 320, I shall also deal with the Opposition amendment to it, amendment (a), which we believe should be rejected, for the reasons I shall give in support of Lords amendment No. 320.
Schedule 25 provides the transitional provisions in respect of control of pollution from the current arrangements based on water authority functions and Control of Pollution Act powers to the new arrangements involving the NRA and the new powers in part III, chapter 1 of the Bill.
I shall deal first with Lords amendments Nos. 317 and 318, which provide more flexible arrangements for transfer of consent applications submitted by the water authorities to the Secretary of State from the Secretary of State to the NRA at an appropriate stage.
The general principle of the pollution control transitional arrangements is that discretion should be left with the Secretary of State to decide whether any actions, cases or other matters which if begun after vesting would be for the NRA should, if uncompleted on transfer date, be transferred to that authority.
The basic purpose of the technical amendments is to extend to sewage treatment applications the principles operating elsewhere in the pollution control part of the schedule. The effect will be to allow Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to complete work on particular cases in those circumstances where this seems sensible, particularly where the processing of cases is well advanced. 5.30 pm
In that regard, the Government are particularly anxious that the inspectorate should carry through to completion its determination of the applications for time limited consents to regulate the current position of those works included in the £1 billion improvement programme for the period while the improvements are carried out. If that investment programme is to be completed as soon as practicable, as the Government intend, it is essential to avoid the delay and unnecessary duplication of work that could arise from transferring to the NRA consent applications on which the inspectorate had nearly completed consideration.
The amendment also makes provision for two consequential changes. In the first case, a sub-paragraph provides for the Secretary of State to direct the companies as to the advertising of any applications. The Secretary of State in fact intends that all applications under the programme for dealing with non-compliant works should be advertised in view of the public interest they have aroused. However, the inspectorate also has to deal--and will be dealing at transfer date--with large numbers of minor applications, for which advertising in the London Gazette might not be appropriate. In exercising the discretion given to him by this amendment, the Secretary of State would expect to follow generally the established guidelines in the annex to the current circular 17/84.
Column 185The second feature of the amendment is that the Secretary of State is enabled to direct the authority to provide temporary consent for discharges that are the subject of pending applications both in cases where the Secretary of State passes action to the NRA and in those where it is retained with him. The reason for that is that many of the cases in question will be discovery cases, where the water authority discovers, for instance, a sewage overflow that may not previously have been known, or at least identified as requiring consent.
For those circumstances, under paragraph 5 of schedule 12, the NRA will have power to give consents without application for discharges that cannot realistically be interrupted while applications are being advertised and considered. The provision for directions for temporary consents pending such action is a transitional equivalent of this provision. The provision is doubly necessary because the inspectorate expects to have large numbers of consent applications in respect of minor discharges outstanding at the end of August as a result of the rigorous reviews that the water authorities have been undertaking of their operations, in preparation for privatisation, to ensure that any minor discharges of any sort that could require consent are, in fact, duly covered, so that both the new companies and the NRA can begin their lives on a basis of good order and proper regulation. Amendments Nos. 319 and 320, taken with amendments Nos. 312 and 323, do two things. First, they amend the terms of existing consents for sewage treatment works discharges to eliminate references to water authorities taking samples of the effluent discharged. It would obviously be inappropriate to apply those to the private sewerage undertakers. After the transfer date, it will be for the NRA to take such samples. Secondly, they put it beyond doubt that, where a works compliance is judged by a programme of samples taken over a relevant period, on and after the transfer date only samples taken by the NRA are to count as a basis for prosecutions of the new companies. In other words, the new bodies and their staff shall not be liable for acts and omissions of their predecessor body.
I need not long delay the House on the first two provisions of the amendments, which simply disapply from consents provisions concerning monitoring and reporting by the water authorities. It is surely self- evident that, with the establishment of the NRA, it would not be appropriate for the undertakers to take their own samples and to report on their performance to the Secretary of State. Consequently, those provisions should go.
The remaining provision deals with circumstances in which compliance with discharge consent standards is assessed over a series of samples taken over a 12-month period, that is, the look-up table system used for control of sewage treatment works discharges for the past four years. Compliance is to be assessed only on the basis of samples taken by the NRA, and therefore the relevant period for assessment of such compliance will begin with the establishment of the NRA and the companies.
Amendments Nos. 312 and 323 establish in the Bill the principle that the new undertakings should not be criminally liable for offences committed by the present water authorities. They simply reflect the principle of criminal case law, established in 1976 in a case heard by the House of Lords, that in the absence of express provision criminal liability does not transfer from one corporate body to another. The amendment changes nothing. In
Column 186view of the particular concern currently being expressed over criminal liabilities of water authorities, we believe it right, however, that the principle should be clear on the face of the Bill. However, what we are doing in amendment 323 is nothing new and nothing special. That principle is no more than ordinary justice, securing that the new companies shall not be liable for the actions of a different corporate body going back some 12 months to before legislation to establish the companies was even published.
Mr. Pike : The Minister is dealing with an important point, and it is a considerable variation of what has been said on previous occasions. Can he give us examples from other privatisations, such as gas supply and transport undertakings, where the new bodies have been liable for offences committed by the previous bodies?
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman is not entirely correct. If he had listened to my point about the case decided in the House of Lords, he would have realised that it established that criminal liability does not transfer from one corporate entity to another. All that we are doing is putting that principle into the Bill.
Mr. Pike : Is the Minister therefore suggesting that any takeover of one corporate body by another in the City will absolve that body of criminal liability for any offence committed prior to the takeover?
Mr. Howard : Of course not. In such cases, the corporate entity usually remains. It may be owned by different shareholders and it may be part of a new group of companies, but it usually remains. In those circumstances, criminal liability will equally remain. That is entirely different from the position that we are contemplating, which is the creation of an entirely new and different corporate entity.
Mr. Alastair Burt (Bury, North) : Opposition Members are missing the point. We are discussing the liability of new companies. It has been suggested that they are immune from prosecution for a year and will not be responsible for their actions. Is it not true that, from day one, any breach of the discharge regulations will be counted against the new company? There will be no incentive to breach the regulations, because ultimately the companies can be prosecuted. We should be concerned about the ability to prosecute the new companies that is retained through the clause and improved by the general benefits that flow from the Bill.
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) : If it is proved that the water supplied to a certain area has very high aluminium levels, and if in future there are moves to prosecute the purveyor of water to a community because a causal link is established between aluminum levels and Alzheimer's disease, will there be a let-out for a new company if it claimed that those aluminium levels were the responsibility of the previous water company?
Mr. Howard : Nothing of the sort will happen. The hon. Gentleman will know that the offence of supplying drinking water that is unfit for human consumption is a new offence created by the Bill. We are discussing criminal
Column 187liability. It will not be possible for the new companies to escape liability on the ground that the cause of any criminal liability should somehow be ascribed to their predecessors.
The only provision made by the clauses and amendments that are now under discussion is the requirement that samples to establish the deficiency of the water concerned must be taken after the new companies exist if they are to find criminal liability in the new companies. The existing companies remain responsible for any samples that are taken which establish any liability on their part. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be assured by that answer to the points that he has raised.
The suggestion that the amendments involve an amnesty is wrong and without foundation. Samples of sewage discharges up to the day of transfer will, as I told the hon. Gentleman, be actionable against the water authority and against the residual water authority maintained in being after transfer. Samples of discharges from the day of transfer will be actionable at the due time against the new company. Not a single sample will be subject to an amnesty. Every one will be actionable against the residual authority or the new company. The so-called amnesty, of which the Opposition make so much, is a figment of their collective imagination.
But what of the variation on that theme--that the principle will, in practice, produce unacceptable results, that the NRA will be crippled at birth, and so on? That argument is also an absurdity, bearing no relationship to the facts, for four reasons.
First, and most important, there will, as I have said, be no immunity in the early stages of the companies' lives. It is quite wrong to suggest that the companies will be able to discharge what they like and get away with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) has just said, companies will have to comply with the terms of their present conditions from the outset, and failures will go on the public registers. Non- complying samples will clock up against them. They will not be discounted. If the record reveals non-compliance over the sampling period, the NRA will be able to bring prosecutions in respect of breaches of the discharge consents for that period.
Secondly, discharge consents for all works now non-compliant, or at a high risk of non-complying, which are varied for the period during which improvement works are in progress, will in any case include so-called "upper tier" limits, a single breach of which will open the company immediately to the risk of prosecution. As well as being an important environmental safeguard, that will provide the NRA with a new enforcement mechanism for those works.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury) : The Minister says that the upper tier limit will be another safeguard, but he must be aware of reports that have already come in from people who are to work in the NRA regional offices that they are extremely worried about the level of the upper tier limits which, in some cases, could lead to water of the strength of raw sewage being pumped into our rivers.
Mr. Howard : The levels of the upper tier consents have not yet been determined. We shall take all representations into account in determining them. But that is a far cry from the Opposition's charge in relation to those matters, that there will be a year's so-called amnesty. The hon. Lady is now suggesting that there will not be an amnesty. She is accepting that prosecutions can be brought
Column 188immediately against the new companies, but she is complaining, in advance of any standards being assessed, about the levels of those upper tier discharge consents.
Mrs. Taylor : I am not suggesting that there will not be an amnesty. I stick by the points that Opposition Members made earlier, on which we shall have time to elaborate shortly. However, the Minister mentioned a specific problem with regard to upper tier limits. Will he confirm that people working in the shadow NRA tell us that limits could be so relaxed that raw sewage could be pumped into our rivers?
Mr. Howard : The limits have not yet been fixed. Anybody can speculate on what might happen if they were at some hypothetical value, but the fact is that they have not been determined. Let me continue to deal with why the Opposition's charge is completely bogus.
Thirdly, in the case of all the other works with no history of non- compliance, it is unlikely that samples taken by the water authority before the transfer date would have any significance for prosecution purposes. It is true that the NRA would need to take samples over a 12-month period before bringing a prosecution, but it is the position now that compliance for sewage treatment works is assessed retrospectively over a 12-month period. That is not new. As hon. Members may know, it was introduced in 1985, following research by the water research centre, and reflects the volatility of sewage effluents and the 95 per cent. basis on which standards are set. In practical terms, we must remember that prosecution is a tool of last resort. While this will be a matter for the NRA, early evidence of possible non-compliance is likely to be a trigger for investigations and discussions with the discharger. The NRA, under its normal enforcement policy, would want to go through a number of stages, including warnings, before contemplating prosecution. 5.45 pm
Finally, the Secretary of State is enabled under paragraph 6 of schedule 12 to direct the NRA at any time to revoke or vary consents where it appears to him appropriate to do so for the protection of public health or flora or fauna. In the event that the NRA is seriously concerned about a particular discharge and about constraints within the consent on its ability to take enforcement action, it could draw the case to the attention of the Secretary of State. It would be open to him to direct the authority to revoke or vary the consent, perhaps by imposition of an upper tier limit whose breach made possible immediate enforcement action.
For those four reasons, any argument that the NRA will be significantly impeded in its enforcement role by the terms of these amendments is wholly without foundation. The amendments ensure that we follow a fair and proper course. It is a course that holds no risks for the NRA, for pollution control or for its effective enforcement. Above all, the amendments ensure that the new companies--the result of a massive reorganisation and restructuring of the water industry--are criminally liable only for those actions for which they were actually responsible. The House should surely accept that as the fair and relevant principle on which to approach those matters.
I apologise for delaying the House so long with explanations, but it is clearly right that I should dispel the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of recent days.
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : River water quality has been declining in recent years. In addition to industrial discharges, the main cause of that deterioration is the direct discharge of untreated sewage effluent. It is that with which the amendments deal and about which we are concerned.
Sewage degrades more rivers than any other pollutants. To what extent, if at all, will the Government succeed in their stated intention of cleaning up the rivers? The Opposition do not believe that they will. They cannot. Despite what the Minister has just said, the Lords amendment to schedule 25 would protect the plcs from the consequences of criminal actions, based on the quality of sewage effluence, before flotation. The fines that people are having to pay are worth almost nothing. The Opposition would much rather concentrate on a preventive approach in the cleaning up of sewage treatment works.
Where is the even-handedness in the Government's approach? Why do the Government argue that water plcs are different from other privatised industries? Why are the arrangements different from those that were made when the old Greater London council's responsibilities and liabilities were transferred to the residuary bodies? Why is water different?
Even the Minister must accept that the amendment is hurried. It has been introduced at the last stage when the going is getting even tougher for the Government. If, as the Minister says, the legal position is clear, why did he have to table the amendment in the first place? Is not that a further reason against privatisation? This hurried amendment will make look-up tables and consent standards start from scratch on day one after vesting. Compliance with sewage discharge consents will be assessed over a 12-month period by reference to a look-up table of specific parameters. Sewage works will have to comply with the consent conditions in the look-up table for 95 per cent. of the time. Therefore, a prosecution can be based only on post- vesting samples. No prosecutions will be possible until at least 12 months after privatisation.
It is no answer for the hon. and learned Gentleman to argue that the amendment is of a transitional nature and that the staff and the plcs should not be liable for the acts and omissions of their predecessors. If the Lords amendments relate simply to a transitional measure, why was it not in the Bill all along? If the samples clocked up over the past year are to have no legal backing after privatisation, what will be the implications for the National Rivers Authority and for private prosecutions? How can the Minister justify the NRA being powerless to prosecute for a whole year while rivers continue to be polluted? How does the Minister propose to deal with pending cases? Why have the Government not found a fairer way of introducing transitional provisions?
The Government are compromising on the environment, as they did through all the stages of the Bill. Why are the Government compromising on public health and the basis of the NRA? The amendments are aimed at achieving those compromises.
What does the Minister have to say about the comments of one of his noble Friends, who is a member of the NRA committee, to the effect that the water companies were being given a 12-month,
prosecution-free holiday, and that the Government are ditching environmentalists to save the sell-off? How will the NRA and its future staff
Column 190feel about that? How will it be able to fulfil its role as the much-acclaimed preventer of pollution? We do not believe that it can fulfil that role effectively.
It would be bad enough if the undertakers were not at risk of prosecution only for the first 12 months after the sell-off, but when amendment No. 312 is placed in the context of all the other changes made to sewage discharge consents, there is a case for real public concern.
The Government invited applications for interim consents. The Minister defends one year of immunity by introducing an upper tier value for the first time. Why, at the start of the debate, was the Minister unable to tell the House what that upper limit will be? Why, in the final stages of the debate, have we not been given any idea of that upper limit? Will it be five times as high as the average effluent level, as we understand the plcs want it to be, or twice as high, as the NRA wants? Will it be three times as high, as the Government have suggested that it could be? Rather than trying to defend immunity from prosecution, the Minister should reveal what the upper limit will be.
Why are the Government rushing through applications for the relaxation of consents standards for sewage treatment works? That is happening in the Severn-Trent area and in others throughout the country. Is it true that, although approximately 842 applications have been received for interim time -limited relaxations, a proportion of the remainder are for long-term relaxations of numerical consents standards that will not be time-limited? What about the third category of applications for changing from numerical to descriptive consents standards? If the Secretary of State and the Minister for Water and Planning are as concerned about controlling pollution as they would have us believe, why have they waived the advertising requirement for descriptive consents? We believe that that is at the heart of the matter, and at the centre of the deception inherent in all of the amendments.
In a letter to Friends of the Earth dated 2 June, the Department of the Environment stated that there will be no relaxation of pollution control standards, yet applications for such relaxations have been invited, submitted and rushed through. The chance of improving river quality becomes even more remote, particularly when one considers the further damaging effects of the Government's reponse to applications to relax consents standards. The Government claim that such relaxations will merely regularise the position, to ensure that they are consistent with the current quality of effluent. The Government's definition of "current" is so shabby that there is no real hope of improving standards, which makes the Bill doubly iniquitous. Even more dangerous is the Government's attitude to the general duty in section 1 of the Water Act 1973 which requires Ministers jointly to promote a national water policy involving the maintenance and restoration--I stress the word "restoration"--of the wholesomeness of water. How can the hon. and learned Gentleman think of relaxing standards when there is a general duty on Ministers to maintain and to restore them? What has happened to that duty? Clearly the Government will be challenged, and my right hon. and hon. Friends will work with the general public and with environmental groups throughout the country to ensure that every consent application is challenged.
We do not believe that the equivalent of raw sewage should be discharged into Britain's rivers. The Government will face challenges in the courts as soon as