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Column 191standards are relaxed. If the Government care so much about improving standards, why did they repeal section 1 of the Water Act 1973--the very legislation that made a general commitment to improve water quality? Why is there no general duty to restore and maintain the quality of controlled water? What happened to the commitment entered into in July 1987 to set statutory quality objectives for rivers? Why will they not be set until 1992, as was stated in a letter to the water authorities that was sent out last year? The United Kingdom is a signatory to directives aimed at setting legally binding standards of river quality. Will the Minister give an assurance that, when determining the 1,070 or more applications, he will in every case discharge the United Kingdom's obligation to prevent pollution by dangerous substances and to achieve compliance with the relevant environmental quality objectives that the directives specify?
Here we are, in the final throes of the debate about water privatisation-- [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] Conservative Members may shout, "Hear, hear", but whatever we may be told about improving standards and dealing with pollution, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I know that the Lords amendments are designed only to deal with the legacy of the Government's failure to invest public money in the infrastructure.
Why should we believe that the group of amendments before the House will achieve improved standards, as the Minister says? The general public cannot be fooled. In a recent poll commissioned by The Observer, only 2 per cent. of the sample rated the Government's record of pollution control as very good. Until the Lords amendments are on the statute book, and if our amendment is not carried, not even 2 per cent. of the population will rate the Government's record on pollution control as very good. Far from coming to an end--I say this for the benefit of those hon. Members who shouted "Hear, hear"--the pollution debate and others concerning our water supplies, sewage discharge consents and the totally unacceptable 12-month immunity from prosecution have only just begun.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : Provided that the right of action against the authorities in respect of pollution does not disappear, surely the bodies that will replace the authorities, and all their employees, should be liable in respect of the pollution that the new bodies cause? Is that not fair?
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : If the Government's proposal is such an obviously good idea as they now claim, why did no one think of it in Committee? Why did not the Minister suggest it during those 200 hours of debate?
Ms. Walley : As always, my hon. Friend has made a very apt point. The Government did not see fit to present the measure during the many hours of debate in Committee ; they have had to introduce it in the final stages
Column 192as a bribe to enable the sell-off to go ahead, because they know--as the public know--that they are in serious difficulties with their water privatisation programme.
Opposition Members know that the debate is only just beginning. Men, women and children--I do not think that the Government understand how important this is to women and children, who are as informed as ever about the state of the environment--know and care enough to ensure that the debate continues. The Opposition, together with environmental and conservation groups, will make certain that the issue stays at the heart of the continuing controversy about this immoral water privatisation legislation.
Mr. Livsey : The Lords amendments are a national scandal. The new water undertakers will be exempted from criminal liability for their discharges, and liability will not be transferred to another corporate body. Freedom of prosecution is to be extended for at least 12 months, and, according to some people's reckoning, for 18 months. Water authorities are now polluting and getting away with it, a state of affairs that will continue under a private monopoly. That breaches what is surely one of the prime environmental principles--that the polluters must pay.
The amendments will cripple the pollution inspectorate. In exposing the callousness of the Government's attitude to the environment and, indeed, to public health, they rumble the Government's privatisation programme. Their aim, however, is to rescue the Government from the hole into which they have dug themselves. If the plcs are to go free from prosecution, the flotation will not be jeopardised. That is what it is all about.
In the past year, 1,000 sewage works in England and Wales broke consent standards. The water authorities cannot sign flotation prospectuses while they are persistently committing criminal offences, so the transfer will be impossible until they are free from prosecution. So many sewage works are breaking the law--20 per cent. at present--that the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office will not be able to get through all the paperwork by November, when the arrangements must be tied up.
On 12 June I asked the Secretary of State for Wales to list the number of sewage works in Wales that were failing established effluent pollution standards. The Under-Secretary provided a list of 102 treatment works that had failed to meet consent standards during 1988, from Presteigne in my constituency to Weston Beggard on the Herefordshire border, and including many other instances throughout the Welsh water authority area.
This is a huge problem, and it is no wonder that the Government are trying to get themselves off the hook. According to yesteday's Western Mail, they are asking for immunity for 124 Welsh sewage works, so the position has deteriorated since 1988. In 1987-88 there were 20,000 breaches of pollution standards in rivers in England and Wales. Only 1 per cent. of offenders were prosecuted, and in only one instance was the maximum fine of £2,000 imposed. That is, in any event, a trivial fine ; we should not forget that pollution also affects drinking water quality.
Any pretensions to commitment on green issues on the part of the Government are a sham, and the Lords amendment proves it. On Monday morning, I stood on the banks of the River Tawe in the Swansea valley with members of the Tawe angling society, discussing the Welsh water authority's application-- as shown in the Western
Column 193Mail on 22 June--to increase discharges from the Ystradgynlais sewage works. We tried to calculate the number of cubic metres of effluent that would be discharged into the river, and the likely effect on the fishery. If we were to stand there in 12 months' time, we decided, there would probably be no fishery, and no fish in the river for the angling society's members.
Mr. Howard : I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not trying deliberately to mislead his constituents or anyone else. He must appreciate that the effect of the water authority's application in respect of its sewage treatment works at Ystradgynlais--as with other treatment works elsewhere--will be to regularise the existing position, not to allow more sewage to be discharged into the river. The works does not comply with the consent standard at present. Works will be put in hand to enable it to meet that standard, and during the interim period the authority should be allowed not to discharge more sewage than it does now, but to continue the discharge at the present level. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that? Will he stop misleading his constituents and the House?
Mr. Livsey : The Minister knows perfectly well that the discharges into the River Tawe are unacceptable, and the position will not be improved by the transfer of the discharge to a private monopoly which will go scot- free for the next 12 months. That is scandalous. Surely it would be far better if the treatment works, and a thousand like it, were put right before privatisation.
Mr. Howard : How does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the sewage works at Ystradgynlais can be put magically into a condition that complies with its existing discharge content? Will he wave a magic wand? He must appreciate that it will take time for the work to be carried out, and that while it is being carried out, it makes sense for the authority not to be prosecuted if the improvements that he and I want are to be put into place.
Mr. Burt : I rise to support this series of amendments and to express surprise at the extraordinary amount of sanctimonious humbug that has come from Opposition Members. One might have got the impression from their remarks that they had been friends of the environment from day one-- that when Labour Members were in sole office, or when they held power during the Lib-Lab pact, their record on investment and the control of pollution had been so good that they could lecture us all about what they had achieved. In fact, an enormous burden of guilt rests on Labour Members, and that has coloured the way in which they approach the amendments that we are discussing, but I will come to that shortly.
I accept what has been said about basic natural justice in this case-- [Interruption.] While that point has merit, it is more important for Opposition Members, who I see grinning, to accept that the greatest sanction against the new companies does not lie simply in the fact of prosecution. It lies in the fact that the threat of prosecution begins on day one. If there had been a suggestion that prosecution procedures could not start on day one--because of some delay relating sampling to the process of law--hon. Members in all parts of the House would have
Column 194expressed concern, for we are all concerned about pollution and the environment and feel strongly about the need for the problems to be tackled.
The important points are that the prosecution process can begin on day one and that the new companies will have no immunity. I cannot believe that the new companies will have any vested interest in fooling about with the discharges that they make right from the start simply because prosecution may be some way off. The threat, the sanction, against the new companies is clear and straightforward. Opposition Members have overdone the immunity point by trying to suggest that the control of pollution will be drastically affected for the worse. Again, they have failed to stress that prosecution of existing authorities goes right up to the last possible day and that the process of prosecution of the new companies can start the day after. They have also failed to concentrate sufficiently on the importance of the upper tier of protection, which is new and which the Government have introduced. That can allow the new rivers authority to act immediately there has been a breach. That protection does not exist at present. It did not exist when Labour Members were in office and had control of the extent of river pollution. It is an additional, significant new power and it will work.
I return to the principal question of guilt which has coloured the action of Opposition Members in this House and in the other place. When the Conservatives came to office, we were faced with the task of clearing out the Augean stables of effluent left by years of neglect by Labour Members. They failed to implement the Control of Pollution Act 1974, although they now claim to have a good record on its implementation. Their failure to implement that Act prevented the public from bringing prosecutions.
Mr. Morley : I do not want to prolong the debate by delaying the hon. Gentleman's remarks because I am anxious that we concentrate on the main issue. If matters have been so wonderful under the Conservatives, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain why--when river and water quality standards generally improved under the last Labour Government and before then--for the first time almost since the second world war, in the last 10 years, under Conservative rule, river water quality has been deteriorating? In my area, the local river has deteriorated for the fourth successive year, after progressive improvements.
Mr. Burt : I gave way to the hon. Gentleman hoping that he would admit some burden of guilt of his party for the failures of the past. He failed to point out that 95 per cent. of our rivers are in good or fair condition, which places us equal top of the European Community league. The failure in the past to invest has undoubtedly caused distress to his constituents now, but as he bears no shame or repentance for that, I must move on.
The economic failure in the past which caused the lack of investment is inherently part of the Opposition's case today. In the other place, Lady Platt said that failure to invest had been a boost for the polluter. I agree, and only as a result of the Bill are we really tackling that legacy of pollution.
Secrecy clouded our perception in the past of the efficiency of sewage treatment works. We have cast that
Column 195secrecy aside, knowing that it is more important to be open about the way in which treatment plants work so that the public may know exactly what is happening. Public pressure to improve-- that is very much part of the Bill--will lead to better standards in future. There is a marked contrast between the two sides of the House about the way in which pollution has been and is being tackled. Our implementation of the Control of Pollution Act, the return of investment to deal with sewage treatment and getting rid of secrecy has resulted in considerable improvements being achieved in recent years, and those improvements will continue. About 80 per cent. of Britain's sewage works are meeting the control of pollution standards. Although that is a good record, we must do better. The new provisions have been misinterpreted by Opposition Members as immunity from prosecution, which they are not. They have been misinterpreted largely because Labour Members bear such a burden of guilt for the way in which pollution was handled when they were in government, compared with the length of time it has taken us, with the improving economy, to tackle the issue. The Bill will help further improvements to be made.
The amendments represent a further example of how we will be tackling pollution in future and how the new companies will be under pressure from the start. The upper tier provisions will represent a guarantee against pollution. Such a guarantee has not existed previously. I congratulate the Government on introducing this series of amendments.
Dr. Kim Howells : We on the Labour Benches have been hoping for too much. We hoped that the new green shawl which the Government have pulled over their shoulders would be an improvement on the usual threadbare variety that they have worn in the past.
Let us be clear that this series of amendments is designed solely to facilitate the birth of the new plcs. As has been made clear, they cannot be born without amendments such as these because they will not be able to operate sewage works until they have signed the flotation prospectus. They cannot do that if they are persistently committing criminal offences.
We are not conducting an abstract political debate. I am willing to admit that river quality has improved. The problem is that the improvements usually occur in the upper rivers. The rivers flow through open countryside before reaching towns and sewage treatment works. I cite the most famous of all Welsh rivers--the one after which we are named--the Taff. It flows right in front of my front door. The Taff is a beautiful river until it reaches the first of the Welsh water authority's sewage treatment plants. From there on down the valley it is a disgrace. The river banks are festooned with the most unsightly rubbish, most of which has come from discharges from sewage plants during periods of high rainfall.
I do not know whether other hon. Members live near such rivers. Everybody living in the valleys of south Wales cannot ignore the rivers, because they live so close by them. We see them every day. It may be possible in other areas to ignore the filth that is put into the rivers. That cannot easily be done in south Wales.
I take up the Minister's challenge to talk about the existing position because what I have described is the existing position. Walking anywhere along the lower Taff one sees small islands of sewage drifting down the river. They threaten to turn the wonderful new Cardiff Bay
Column 196development corporation barrage into the smelliest dockside development anywhere in western Europe. It is a disgrace and we should not have to live with it.
As the Minister for Water and Planning said, the new plcs will not be equipped with magic wands that will clean up the rivers on vesting day. They will inherit the present appalling sewage discharges into our rivers. The amendments do not address the immediate problem, which is to spend capital on sewage treatment plants so that we comply as quickly as possible with the European Community's minimum standards. That is not the central purpose of the amendments. They provide for a honeymoon period during which the new companies will be able to make investment decisions which may or may not boost their profits. Hard decisions will not have to be made during that period about cleaning up their act. The decisions that the new companies make will be designed primarily to improve profits as soon as possible.
My claim, and that of many others in my constituency and of people throughout Wales who live close to rivers and who have witnessed the deterioration of our rivers as a result of sewage discharges every single day, is that the amendments will do nothing to improve the position.
Mr. Leigh : I wish that all 55 million members of the public could have witnessed the Committee proceedings and also these proceedings. Then they could have compared the logic of the Minister of Water and Planning's case with the anecdotal prejudice of Opposition Members, which has been revealed very clearly in this debate.
There are four very good reasons why the Opposition amendment should not be agreed to. These reasons would stand up in any court of law or in front of any objective assembly. First, from day one the private water companies will be responsible for any breaches of discharge consents. Secondly, we are establishing upper tier limits that have never been established before. Thirdly, under paragraph 6 of schedule 12 the National Rivers Authority will be empowered to take immediate enforcement action against any company that breaches the discharge consents. Fourthly, it will be a breach of natural justice, as is well understood under our legal system, for a new company to be made responsible for the faults of its predecessors. Those are four good reasons why the amendment is incomprehensible. What a pity that the public could not have heard my hon. and learned Friend say just that.
We have had nearly 200 hours of debate. We are in the closing moments of what should have been the flagship of the Labour party's opposition to this Government--the flagship that would take the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) into the shadow cabinet. What was she reduced to in the closing moments of the debate? What bright new ideas did she put forward? She was reduced to talking about transitional arrangements for sewage. She could not even get her case together very well. In time, members of the public will compare the position next year and the year after that with the position a few years ago.
Yesterday I asked five questions at the beginning of our debate about the Labour Government's record. I asked whether they had implemented part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the bathing beaches directive. Once again the hon. Member for Dewsbury is looking down at her notes. I shall be happy to give way to her. I referred to the secrecy at that time and to the prohibition
Column 197of prosecutions by members of the public. [Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Lady is mumbling under her breath, but she cannot answer these questions.
Members of the public will compare what happened 10 years ago with what will happen in a few years time. For the first time, an environmental protection agency--I do not know what the hon. Lady is drawing from her handbag. Perhaps she could explain why the level of investment under the last Labour Government was going down, whereas now it is going up. In a few years, members of the public will see the establishment of a strong National Rivers Authority that is capable of looking after our environment. They will also see that powerful companies will be able for the first time to invest in the infrastructure. That investment has always been denied to the water industry. That is the truth and those are the facts. What a pity that every member of the public could not hear the debates.
Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) : As we move into the last half hour of our seven months of deliberations on the Water Bill, it is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) should still be trying to convince himself that there is some political merit in the Bill. I, too, wish that members of the public had been able to hear the months of deliberation in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman's four questions could have been so simply answered, why did the Government not table an amendment in Committee so that the issues could be properly debated then? Instead, they tried to sneak in a proposal on a Friday afternoon in the other place, thus denying the Opposition the opportunity to table an amendment to it. The Government knew that they were in trouble and that they had to sneak in this polluters' charter, this polluters' paradise, to ensure that flotation will have a modicum of success.
During the last seven months the public have given overwhelming support to the Opposition. The public are anxious about the quality of water and about the pollution of our rivers. Opinion polls showed that there was 96 per cent. opposition to this measure. Today we have heard that only 2 per cent. of the public are in favour of it. I am quite sure, having analysed The Observer poll, that the 2 per cent. is made up of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister for Water and Planning.
Mr. Burt rose --
Mr Bradley : I see that the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) is leaping to the Government's support. However, having looked at his majority I do not think that, if I were he, I should be standing up quite so confidently because I believed that the public in Bury like the Bill.
This last-minute amendment is the last obnoxious amendment to an obnoxious Bill which the public do not support. The Government have tried to mislead the public into thinking that this is merely a transitional arrangement. If that is so, why oh why did a Minister not stand up months ago and table the amendment as a major plank in the Government's war against pollution? There was absolute silence. The industry has turned on the Government. It feared what would happen if it had to comply with the quality of water and sampling requirements that had been in force during the previous
Column 198few months. The industry said to the Government, "We want an easy ride. Please, Minister, give us that easy ride." Of course the Minister gave it that easy ride.
The new water companies want the assets, the land and the juicy contracts but they do not want the liabilities that go with the good bits. If they have to take on the old liabilities, they know that privatisation will not be successful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) so eloquently put it, why oh why when the Government abolished the county councils, including the Greater Manchester council, did they not wipe the slate clean and remove all the liabilities? Instead of doing that, they transferred them to the new district authorities, which had to take them over. Any litigation that was outstanding at that stage was not suddenly wiped out. The public were not told that, because the Government were abolishing the metropolitan authorities, any cases against them would be expunged. Those cases were passed on, in the same way as prosecutions ought to be passed on to the new water companies. However much the Minister may protest otherwise, the powers of the National Rivers Authority will be undermined from day one. That has to be contrasted with the excellent proposals of the Labour party. The Labour Government after the next general election will ensure that provision is made for environmental protection.
The Minister has tried to justify the amendment on four points, which were as shallow as many of his other arguments. I know that time is limited, but I wish to pick up one point. Will the Minister make absolutely clear what will happen to private prosecutions that are already in the pipeline? Will those well-researched private prosecutions, with samples taken and very effective cases put together, fall when the new companies take over, regardless of their status or the period in which they have built up? Will all those private prosecutions fall as a result of the amendment? We need to be absolutely clear about that.
In the final half hour of the debate, it must be said that the Labour party has had to be seen as the real safeguarder of the environment and as the people who really care about the environment and pollution. I have spoken at meetings throughout the country, particularly in Manchester, my city. The people of Manchester will not forgive the Government for trying to privatise their water. I have spoken at meetings all over Greater Manchester and not one voice has been raised in support of the Bill. The public have expressed massive anxiety about the quality of their water, local beaches, and rivers. They know that that can be effectively controlled and monitored and better standards implemented only by public investment in our water industry. The Labour party is committed to that. When a Labour Government get back into power they will bring water back as a public utility, with proper safeguards and proper environmental controls. We will not have to give handouts to people who want to make a quick buck out of our water.
The Bill has been framed to give profits to the City slickers, to people who do not care about our environment or the quality of our water. That will be the vanguard of the defeat of the hon. Member for Bury, North and many other Conservative Members who do not care about our environment.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : I hope that the House will forgive me if I move away from party political hyperbole to mention my concern about amendment No. 320, which appears to provide an avenue for transferring the pollution liability, following the issue of consents to pollution, to private water authorities when the Bill is enacted. That would be fine if the monitoring of pollution in the existing system were adequate. It is not and it should be improved. I need some reassurance that the proposal in amendment No. 320 will do the job.
My particular concern is the pollution of water by fluoridation. I have no doubt about the Government's commitment to pure water, but I am not sure that they fully understand what pure water is. For years they accepted that the existing legislation on the purity of water allowed fluoridation, and for years the anti-fluoridationists said that the Government's interpretation of the law that the fluoridation of water was in accordance with the water legislation was wrong. Eventually, the matter was tested and a court in Scotland decided that the Government's interpretation of what was meant by the purity of water was wrong. The Water (Fluoridation) Act 1985 was passed to make right what had hitherto been wrong. For many years successive Governments were wrong about what was meant by pure water. The Government have provided for polluting the water by allowing water authorities, on the request of health authorities, to add fluoride to the water. Now, in amendment No. 166, the possibility is to be transferred to the Secretary of State, if he sees fit, which he may not, and if he can get the permission of the Treasury--which the Treasury will be reluctant to give, as it is with any blank cheque--for the continuing provision of an indemnity if evil effects follow the fluoridation of water. If I were a cost-conscious water undertaker, I should be wary of relying on the ifs and buts of amendment No. 166, which we have just allowed into the Bill, to get me out of financial trouble in the event of an accidental excessive discharge causing suffering to humans.
To repeat my four-and-a-half-hour introduction to a speech on the evils of fluoridation--the mass medication of our drinking water by a poison when the dose is unknown because it is uncontrollable, when individual susceptibility to harm is unknown, when the value to an individual is unknown and when there is substantial evidence that it is unbeneficial to the teeth, harmful to the health and is a massive infringement of the liberty of the individual to be forced medically to be treated against his will--would be out of order, so I have no intention of doing so. But I hope that I am in order when I suggest that the conditions set out in amendment No. 320,
"(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"
and that set out in paragraph (c) are totally and utterly inadequate. As they exist now in our water provision, they do not work. They have done nothing to limit the possibility of a Camelford incident. Had hexafluorosilicicacid been poured into the water supply, it would have killed people and not fish and would have done much more than cause sickness and ill-health to the people in that area. The present rules have done nothing to stop the current overdose of fluoride as it gets into our systems
Column 200cumulatively through food, industrial processes, toothpaste--which has a high incidence of fluoride and is swallowed by
children--fluoride tablets and the one part per million in the water supply where it is fluoridated. The overfeeding of the water supply has recently been tabulated in north Lincolnshire, where for many years an excess above the one part per million has gone into the drinking water. At 15 January 1986, 3.88 parts per million were put into the drinking water. That is just one example. Often when a test is carried out and the figures are forthcoming it appears that the proportion is above the limit that is allowed.
An increasing incidence of mottling of the teeth throughout the country is disfiguring young people, particularly girls, because levels of fluoride of one part per million or 1.5 parts per million have a considerable effect, but the Government seem to have taken no account of it. There is evidence that 10 per cent. of young people have their teeth adversely affected and disfigured by as little as 2 mg of fluoride per day.
I understand that this debate must now come to an end. This is a shortened version of my fluoridation speech, but the provision for monitoring the addition of fluoride to our water at the point of entry into the system is not satisfactory. Therefore, it is important for us to start monitoring the amount of fluoride in our sewage at the point of exit. That is why the conditions in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) should be toughened. They should take account of the fluoride content of sewage. Only then would we know the volume of fluoride which comes out of the body and that would produce some idea of the enormous amount more which is retained in the body. One of the great evils of fluoride is that it does not pass out of the system at anything like the rate it should to be healthy. The proposed provisions are inadequate because they do not improve upon the existing system of checking consents which is totally inadequate. Of course, there is another way of stopping the risk of disfiguring teeth and the threat to the life and health of people, and that is to do what was done in West Germany, Holland and Sweden. Because of the medical objections, and to some extent the political objections, to the dangers of fluoridating public drinking water, fluoridation of the water was banned. I have no doubt that during our lifetime fluoride in the drinking water of the United Kingdom will be banned because eventually Governments will realise what a danger it is to people's health, quite apart from the fact that it is an appalling infringement of the individual's liberty.
Mr. Morley : During the debate, I have heard arguments that have been somewhat tortuous and bizarre. It is remarkable that some hon. Members have argued that simply because the water authorities are moving from the public to the private authority they are no longer responsible for past misdemeanours and discharge levels. It is as though the Minister--I do not wish this upon him--were suddenly hit by a National Bus Company bus and broke his arm, the bus company was broken up and sold to other divisions and the company said, "We no longer have that corporate structure. We are no longer responsible for the damage that occurred under the other company, even though the same management and capital investment are in place and we have the same vehicles and installations." That is what is happening with the water authorities. To argue otherwise is ludicrous.
Column 201People in my constituency are not happy about the relaxation of discharge limits placed on sewage works. The limit on sewage outfall at the villages of Winteringham and Winterton is to be relaxed. At present, raw sewage is pumped into the Humber, having gone through merely a screening process to remove the larger bits. Under the Government's proposals, the companies will be able to pump raw sewage into rivers for a year. It will take that long to carry out the sampling and collect all the information that is needed before action can be taken.
The Minister may recall that the Opposition argued that the National Rivers Authority should have been set up a year in advance of privatisation so that it was up and running, ready to do the job it was supposed to do. That would have been a year in which to put things right and divert some money. The Minister could easily do that, even at this stage, by recommending postponement of the flotation for a year to tackle these problems.
To help, I shall give the Minister some suggestions about how the water companies could do that. They could divert the millions of pounds spent on stupid advertisements telling people what they already know, which would go a long way towards dealing with some of the problems. By postponing the flotation, £850 million a year could be saved--the cost of the privatisation programme that will bear on consumers every year in which the water companies are in the private sector. The water authorities' profits could be diverted to deal with infrastructure investment, but that cannot be done when they are due to be flogged off. That is why the Government are transferring the water authorities to the private sector without taking account of my modest suggestion to delay flotation for a year. In doing that, the Minister is polluting our rivers and putting our water quality standards at risk.
By voting for this measure, the Minister is breaking the law. By encouraging Conservative Members to do the same, he is encouraging them to break the law. That law is EEC directive 79/409, a wildlife directive, which states :
"Member States shall strive to avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats".
By giving this 12-month exemption from prosecution--a licence to pollute-- the Government are in breach of that EEC directive. Every member of the Government who votes for this measure votes for a breach of that directive. I hope that my hon. Friends will take this matter up with Labour Members of the European Parliament--who, following the last European election, represent most people in the United Kingdom--and insist that the EEC take action through European courts, as the Government are clearly in breach of that directive. 6.45 pm
The Government may win the vote, using their usual steamroller tactics, but they have lost the arguments on water privatisation all the way along. Every opinion poll and every person to whom one talks says that that is so. To suggest that the public have been misled is patronising to the people who have weighed up the arguments, considered the facts and rightly concluded that water privatisation will do nothing to bring forward improvements in water quality standards and will, at worst, jeopardise what we already have and undermine those
Column 202standards. In the amendments, the Government have been putting forward not green policies but greedy policies, and they will pay the price for them.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : We have had an interesting debate on an important topic. The Minister started in a typical way. Sometimes I think that his tactic in these debates is to sound so boring that we will all lose interest and perhaps go away. Sometimes he wants to sound so technical that people will feel intimidated. As that tactic has not worked so far throughout our proceedings, he was rather hopeful in expecting it to work today.
In one way, it is appropriate that this is the last amendment and the last debate during the Bill's passage. The Government's action--first, in relaxing the consent levels for sewage treatment plants that are operating illegally and, now, in introducing this immunity--is typical of their attitudes towards pollution and the environment generally. Their action today blows the lid off any claim that they make that the Bill is remotely green. The amendment to give immunity to water companies whose sewage treatment plants have been operating illegally shows that the Government do not care about pollution, standards or the environment.
The Government have presided over an outrageous increase in pollution. There has been an enormous increase in pollution incidents of all kinds. In 1980-81, there were about 12,500 incidents. In 1987-88, there were 23,253 incidents. One reason for the increase has been the attitude of the water authorities--approved by the Government--in trying to persuade water polluters to reform rather than prosecuting them. Only about 1.5 per cent. are prosecuted. That approach has meant that polluters have found it cheaper to continue to pollute, and risk being caught, prosecuted and given a small fine, than to invest in pollution prevention.
The Government have told us many times that one reason for the few prosecutions is that the water authorities have set a bad example with sewage treatment plants, hence the proposals--which we would take further-- for an independent National Rivers Authority. We were told that we had to separate the gamekeeper and poacher to solve these problems, yet the NRA is to be handicapped from the start because of the Government's amendments. If the NRA cannot prosecute the water companies for breaches by sewage treatment plants, what will lesser polluters say when the NRA tries to prosecute them during that first year once the water authorities are privatised when it is imperative that the right tone is set? If prosecutions are not possible during that first year--we have established that they are not--that is the wrong message, as one Conservative Member said yesterday. We have heard about the statements made by the chairman of the South West water authority, a man who regards his future career as being in the privatised water industry. He has said that he believes that it will be the job of the new private water companies to outwit the regulators. That is recorded as his approach. The regulators will not need outwitting, because the Secretary of State is doing that job for the companies. He is making private prosecutions virtually impossible, and he is tying one hand of the National Rivers Authority behind its back before it even starts its work. That may have a knock-on effect on its ability to prosecute.
It was significant that the Minister did not mention any deadline by which the sewage treatment plants will have to
Column 203comply. I take that as an admission that there is no deadline for compliance. In Committee, he said that he hoped--
"in some circumstances and when it is easy"--
that sewage treatment plants might come up to scratch by 1992, but he has given no guarantee that that will be the case. His letter to the water authorities states :
"Where additional investment cannot be justified in terms of significant benefits meaning the sewage treatment plants may have to continue operating below the standards that are required." The Government's priority has not been discernible during the debate. Their priority is not the price of water, the quality of drinking water, or ensuring that sewage treatment plants do not pollute our rivers. Their priority is simply to ensure that the water companies are able to take advantage of the industry's assets without taking on any of the liabilities.
The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said yesterday that this amendment would "send the wrong signals" to the privatised water industry because it would tell it that pollution was all right. For once, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is the green light for polluters.
The Minister is clearly telling us that the private water companies want to take on all the water industry's assets, but they want none of the liabilities. Yesterday, when we tried to ensure that the public's land assets would be protected, the Government voted down our amendment.
Earlier in our debates on the water industry, Opposition Members offered to support those parts of the Bill that could have been used to improve the environment. We offered to support and strengthen the National Rivers Authority to tackle pollution problems and to start to improve our environment. We said that if the Government had dropped part II of the Bill, we could have established the National Rivers Authority quickly. The Government were not interested in that. This amendment symbolises just what the Government are about--"forget standards, forget pollution problems, just make sure that the sale goes ahead."
The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) said that he hoped that the public would listen to our debate. The public have been listening to our debate, and that is why 79 per cent. of them are against water privatisation.
Ministers may bully Conservative Members into the Lobby tonight, as they have done on other occasions, but they cannot bully the electorate. This Bill will be one of the nails in the Government's coffin.
Mr. Howard : I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on their speeches. They exposed the fallacies that were advanced by the Opposition. Although I cannot entirely agree with the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) about fluoridation, I can assure him that the monitoring arrangements that will be in place under the National Rivers Authority as a result of the Bill will be a substantial advance in pollution control, and I hope that he will derive a great deal of comfort from that.
Column 204We have heard from Opposition Members what we have heard throughout our proceedings on the Bill. They make their prepared speeches, and they will not listen to any of the arguments, however compelling they may be. No more compelling example of that could there be than the repeated assertion by practically every Opposition Member who has spoken in the debate that the effect of this amendment is to make it impossible for prosecutions to take place in the first 12 months after privatisation. That is wrong, untrue, and entirely inaccurate. It has no basis in the provisions contained in the amendments. We have demonstrated in great detail how mistaken that viewpoint was. The extraordinary thing about the attitude of Opposition Members--it should not still amaze me, although it does--is that each of them has complained about the state of our water environment, but they have failed to recognise that the existing arrangements for our water environment are responsible for the fact that it is not as good as we would like it to be. The Opposition refrain is, "Things are dreadful as they are ; let us keep them exactly as they are."
The most extraordinary claim of all was by the hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, North (Ms. Walley), who said that Opposition Members, in their attitude to this legislation, would work with environmental groups. The hon. Lady referred to 10 years ago. I invite the House to consider the position as it was 10 years ago when this Government came to office and when the Control of Pollution Act 1974 lay unimplemented by the Labour party. Were Labour Members working with environmental groups 10 years ago when that Act was unimplemented and when investment in sewerage services had been drastically cut by the Labour party? Were they working with environmental groups 10 years ago when the water authorities were in a hopelessly inhibited position, when operators and regulators were given deemed consents for their treatment works discharges? Were they working with environmental groups when they put those provisions in place? On the performance of sewage treatment works, we did not know then what proportion failed to meet their consent standards. When it was in power, the Labour party had not even bothered to collect the information. Were Labour Members working with environmental groups when they kept that information from the public? They denied the public the information that they needed to find out what was happening with the pollution of our water environment, and the right of public prosecution was absolutely nowhere to be seen.
During those 10 years, substantial progress has been made in putting right those wrongs. There has been a substantial increase in investment and in the information that is made available to the public. The public are now able to use powers to bring private prosecutions which were not even contemplated when the Labour party was in power. We shall take those advances further and we shall build on them. With this legislation, we shall provide the framework for the clean-up of our water environment that the whole nation is anxious to see.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 313 to 319 agreed to.
Lords amendment : No. 320, in page 356, line 48, at end insert--