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Mrs. Taylor : The motions relate to the regulations that the Government are introducing following the passage of the Water Act 1989. We are debating--yet again in rushed circumstances--important regulations that the Government are seeking to push through with the minimum time for consultation and discussion. So great was the haste of the Government to introduce the regulations that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had to insist on its right of proper scrutiny when the Government tried to bounce the Committee by presenting 15 sets of regulations and asking the Committee to deal with them within five days. That would have enabled the debate to take place last week, with even less time for consultation and discussion with outside groups.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said earlier, the Joint Committee had time to consider only three of the 15 sets of statutory instruments in detail. When the Committee had examined the three sets, it issued a pretty damning report in which it outlined the major defects and drew attention to sloppy drafting which should not form the basis of legislation. I hope that the Minister will clarify some of the issues that have been raised by the Committee. Its comments on the regulations are significant and important.
Everyone will agree that the water supply and water quality regulations, which relate to EC standards, are important. The Joint Committee reported that the drafting is defective and that there are unexpected uses of powers or provisions that give rise to doubt as to the vires of the regulations. Various examples are given. The Committee queried regulation 3(6) with the Department's officials and witnesses. The Department's witnesses
"admitted that the drafting of the regulations was not successful."
Similarly, the witnesses admitted that the drafting of regulation 6(2) was defective and confusing. They agreed that the drafting of regulation 8(1) was deficient. The Committee asked the witnesses for the meaning of some of the phrases contained in the regulations. The witnesses confessed that the meaning was not revealed in the text because after the making of amendments there had been an accidental failure to make consequential amendments in the text of the instrument. It is obvious that the Government have yet again put their haste to rush these regulations through before the quality of the legislation that they have enacted. I could produce further examples, but I do not wish to detain the House too long. The Joint Committee has drawn the attention of the House to the fact that, on the basis of its discussions and investigations, it has found an unusual and unexpected use of powers. The same criticisms are made of the water supply, sewerage service and customer service standard regulations.
When the Joint Committee was discussing these matters and taking evidence from departmental witnesses, the Department gave some assurances that amending regulations to rectify some of the drafting omissions would come into force on 1 September. We are nearing the summer recess and I ask the Minister what opportunity there will be for parliamentary scrutiny of the amendments. We have precious little time today to discuss 15 sets of regulations. If they are all as defective as the three that the Joint Committee identified, a host of defective regulations will be introduced while Ministers and their officials talk about possible consequent
Column 393amendments that it will not be possible to subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position. It is not good enough for Parliament to be asked to pass defective regulations which the Department has admitted that it intends to amend before they come into operation.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Does the hon. Lady agree that in these matters a balance must be observed? She will note that SI No. 1159 provides for the payment of penalty charges for unsatisfactory service. Is it not entirely desirable that the payment of such charges should become possible at the earliest date? Would not the course that she has outlined, where we might have to wait quite a long time for minor and technical defects to be rectified, prevent customers from availing themselves of the benefit of an entirely positive regulation?
Mrs. Taylor : The customer will not get the so-called benefits of the system in September. It will be quite some time before it takes effect. The problem is that the Government are intent on pushing ahead with privatisation as quickly as possible. That being so, they are not willing to consider the interests of consumers or of others. Our discussions on the Water Bill, as it then was, have been marked at every stage by the ridiculous haste and curtailment of debate which have been imposed by Ministers.
Fortunately, the public are not as naive as Ministers would wish and they have rumbled the consequences of privatisation despite, or perhaps because of, the Government's panic. There is no doubt that Ministers are longing for the recess so that they can make even more statements relevant and important to privatisation--perhaps on debt write-off or the value of the K factor--without even the degree of parliamentary scrutiny being allowed today. Given all the current speculation, it appears that Ministers responsible for the bad handling of the Act are likely to be out of the Department, even out of the Government, before the policy is out of the woods. By allowing only three hours debate on 15 regulations, is the Minister saying that they are not sufficiently important to warrant more time? I believe that they are potentially very important. They could have helped to protect us from the worst consequences of privatisation--the threat to land, the problems that consumers will face in dealing with a private monopoly and problems with access to information.
A whole stream of regulations must be debated today in a short time. For example, there are the Surface Waters (Classification) Regulations, which comprise one group that we are happy to accept. I wonder why the Government accept 50 mg of nitrate per litre as an appropriate minimum standard for surface water extracted for drinking water when they opposed a draft EC directive set at the same limit. Is it simply that the Government are schizophrenic and will not agree to limits for Europe that they will agree to in Britain, or has there been a mistake and we are to have standards higher than some parts of the Government might wish? Of course, we do not make any complaints about that.
I hope that the Minister will answer one important question : to which waters will the regulations apply? Will he give us a straight answer? I hope that he will confirm that they will apply to all waters where there is abstraction
Column 394for drinking water. I hope that he will tell us tonight and not say that we will have an answer in a few weeks when everyone is on holiday.
Another set of regulations that cause concern, and that are certainly not adequate to give the protection that we need post-privatisation, are the Control of Pollution (Registers) Regulations. We acknowledge, even if the Secretary of State does not, that the public wants proper access to information and will increasingly demand it. The regulations are inadequate because they do not make it easy--indeed, they make it difficult--for the public to have meaningful access to critical information. Information is to be stored in a few places, in a technical form only, and there will be a charging system for access. That makes it difficult, to say the least, to obtain the information that the public may require. In addition, some water authorities define certain samples as operational and omit them from the register. That creates a huge potential for abuse. We know that the Secretary of State has a new-found concern for accurate information. However, even before his statement this afternoon the Opposition had concluded that the old adage should be rewritten and that we should now say that there are lies, damn lies, statistics and Ridleys. The accuracy of the Secretary of State's information is--if I can say it--rather far from accurate.
We are not surprised that the Secretary of State and the Minister have not taken the opportunity provided by the regulations to improve public access to verified information. I hope that the EC directive on access to environmental information will ensure that information is not only available, but available in a form that can be readily used and readily understood by the public. It is a shame that the EC appears to be giving protection that should more appropriately have been provided by the Government.
The EC plays the same role in the drinking water regulations. It goes without saying that we welcome the transposition of the 1980 EC directive on drinking water quality into British law. After all, we pressed for that in Committee. We are concerned about the sloppy drafting referred to by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The transposition of that directive into British law takes us no further forward in the implementation of the directive. Only last week the Secretary of State pleaded with the European Commission for more time to implement a directive that the Government signed in 1980 and that should have been implemented by 1985. The Secretary of State said during the debate on Lords amendments to the Water Act that he could not accept the House of Lords deadline for compliance by 1993 because it was against Community law which gave a deadline of 1985. We learned today that the Secretary of State was no more successful in pulling the wool over the eyes of the Commissioner than he has been in persuading the British public of the virtues of privatisation. No doubt he put the case badly. The basic position remains, and all outstanding action against the United Kingdom remains active. The Commissioner, despite the Secretary of State's comments to the contrary, is still not satisfied that the British Government have produced a reasonable timetable for compliance with the drinking water directive. The European Commission will take action against the United Kingdom on a variety of issues.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : Given the Opposition's feeling about this matter, is it not possible that, far from the Government taking a negative stance on the purity of water, they are in fact ensuring that any standards that are adopted are applicable to this country and its rivers and geological strata, which are not similar to those in the European Community? Are not the Government defending the British people, including my constituents, to ensure that there is water purity consistent with what we need?
Mrs. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman's statement astounds me. The Government signed the 1980 directive and agreed to the standards and parameters laid down in it. Ministers have not said that they do not intend to implement the directive ; they have simply failed to make any progress. Do the Government now intend to change their policy and, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, say that they should not implement the directive?
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : The hon. Lady has failed to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). Of course the Government intend to comply with the directive, including in the area represented by my hon. Friend, but we are not prepared to comply with it using technology that is unproven and may, in itself, lead to health risks for my hon. Friend's constituents.
Mrs. Taylor : That is complete nonsense. The Minister is looking to make excuses, because he wants to go back on Government assurances on compliance. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) mentioned geological problems. There is scope in the directive for derogations where such problems exist. Earlier, the Minister accepted the need to implement the directive. If he is going back on that, the Commission will be very interested to hear about it.
Mr. Howard : I am not going back on it, but I hope that the hon. Lady is not challenging the bona fides of the advice on which we are acting, and which we put in detail to the Commission, on the denitrification technology that is necessary to comply with the nitrate directive in two areas of the country, including that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. That technology is not yet proven, and we cannot be satisfied that it would not itself pose risks to health. Is the hon. Lady challenging that evidence? If so, on what basis?
Mrs. Taylor : I am making the point that the Government are looking for excuses to delay action yet again. The Government have had since 1980 to produce their plans, but they deliberately prevaricated and delayed. They are now looking for even more excuses.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : It would be of great assistance to many right hon. and hon. Members if the hon. Lady would answer precisely the question just put to her by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister.
Mrs. Taylor : The Government obviously decided that they need to look for new excuses. When we debated the Lords amendments, the Secretary of State told the House that there was no need to worry about the problems surrounding nitrates because he would secure relaxations of the directive from the EC. Obviously he has not done so, so the Government are trying to change their tactics. We should be clear where responsibility lies. The Government signed the directive in 1980 and had nine years in which to
Column 396come up with a method of dealing with the problem. Instead, they sat on the problem, and now refuse to deal with it because they want to prepare the water industry for privatisation.
Mr. Howard : I shall deal with that point in due course, but will the hon. Lady stop prevaricating and answer the question that I put to her? Is she challenging the scientific basis on which we have yet to test the technology that is necessary to achieve compliance in respect of Stafford? If so, on what basis? Such matters are far too serious to be dealt with irresponsibly, as the hon. Lady is doing.
Mrs. Taylor : I am challenging whether the Government are serious about their intention to comply with the drinking water directive. The EC has been compelled to take action against the British Government in many areas. I refer to the lax interpretation of the lead parameter in Scotland, nitrites in Norwich, levels of aluminium and bacteriological standards in Bradford, levels of aluminium, lead, polyforms and high pH in Calderdale, nitrates in Redbridge, aluminium in Birmingham, and illegal derogation from the required aluminium levels in Yorkshire. Time and time again, the Commission asked the Government for their plans for complying with the 1980 directive. I repeat that, after nine years, the Government have still not come up with any.
Contrary to the Secretary of State's statements when the Lords amendments were debated, there is no prospect of a general relaxation of the directive. The regulatory committee established to monitor compliance with the directive is charged with the responsibility "to improve and accelerate practical implementation of these Directives, and while retaining the protection provided to man and the environment "
As the Minister and his officials know, the only likely change will be a more comprehensive specification of the parameters for pesticides. Any other changes are likely to involve the setting of higher, not lower, parameters for substances such as aluminium. The Water Supply and Sewerage Services (Customer Service Standards) Regulations 1989 have been proclaimed by the Minister as giving the consumer a better deal. However, by comparison with the consumers' charter that we advocated in Committee, the regulations are pretty meagre, and they are totally inadequate for the dangers posed to the consumer by privatisation.
The Minister consulted on those regulations, but unfortunately ignored many of the representations he received. Certainly he ignored many of those made by the National Consumer Council, though he may have listened to the people who hope to run the industry post-privatisation. The National Consumer Council, like ourselves, welcomes the basic principle of a guaranteed standards scheme and of a compensation scheme, but there is much that the council would like to change. It points out that the arrangements for consumer redress are complex and not comprehensive, when they should be simple and easy to understand and use. The NCC also comments :
Column 397"Because the balance of power between individual consumers and a monopolistic supplier"--
such as the water plcs will be--
"is weighted in favour of the industry, we believe the burden of proof must rest largely with the water and sewerage companies." The council has many arguments with the Secretary of State and with the Minister for Water and Planning, and is disappointed that its representations were not taken on board.
The regulations lay down the arrangements that should be observed if appointments made by the undertakers are not kept, yet such appointments will be imposed by the undertakers and will not be the subject of agreement between the company and the customer. Moreover, the customer will have to prove that the record of an appointment made by the company is incorrect, which it will be very difficult for the individual customer to do.
As to the interruption of water supplies, obviously the hon. and learned Gentleman listened to the industry rather than to the consumer organisations. The draft regulations stipulated that there should be 24 hours' notice of an interruption of supply, but now the Minister proposes no minimum period of notice. The regulations incorporate a number of glaring anomalies. They include the provision that anyone in debt to a water company will not be entitled to compensation. That is likely to create problems, especially if one bears in mind what is likely to happen to water charges and that the prospect of metering is looming. Both will lead to an increased number of debts and a higher percentage of disputed bills. All in all, the regulations do little to strengthen the hand of the consumer, and I hope that the Minister will think again about them. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will this evening answer the question asked of him by a number of consumer organisations. Will he confirm that any undertaker that breaks the code of practice and does not follow the regulations' guidelines will be liable to lose its licence? As even some Conservative Members said, one is dealing with a private monopoly which will pose many dangers to the consumer.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : This is a matter of grave importance to my constituents as I represent an area that has been accused of being high in nitrates. I hope that the hon. Lady will answer my question ; she has not done so yet, although she has been given many opportunities. If she has her way tonight, my constituents may be put at risk.
Mrs. Taylor rose --
Mr. Leigh : I do not want any more prevarication. My constituents may be put at risk if Labour's proposal is implemented, because the necessary technology is not available. It is about time that she answered.
Mrs. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman is scaremongering yet again. He knows very well that his Government signed that directive and agreed the limits on nitrate. The Secretary of State may think that he knows better than the EC and the health organisations what constitutes a safe nitrate level, but I assure him that his consumers would like the 1980 water directive to be implemented.
Mrs. Taylor : No, I have already given way far too many times. Let me say a little about what many consider one of the most important of all the regulations, and one of the most controversial. It is controversial because the Minister has been very misleading. I refer to what will happen to the land owned by the water authorities. What are the implications for conservation, access and recreation after privatisation?
Throughout our discussions the Minister has tried to play down the problem of the protection of public land--for, until privatisation, it remains public. We all know that he faces a dilemma. The water authorities own nearly half a million acres of land--much of it in areas of outstanding natural beauty, even if not all of it is formally classified as such. The Government have bowed to different pressures at different times. In the House of Lords they introduced first one and then another set of amendments, and then came up with the proposal that a share of the proceeds would go to the public. That was, at the least, an admission that land sales would result in a gain.
The Minister's basic problem is that if he places too many restrictions on the use of the land he will send what are, from his point of view, the wrong signals and messages to the City. He must keep open the prospect of money to be made from the development of the land. After all, the water industry is a no-growth--or, at least, low-growth--industry, and such industries are not usually very attractive to the stock market. The land represents the "carrot". That is why the code of practice on conservation, access and recreation is full of pious intentions but is, as a whole, almost unenforceable.
The Minister is paying lip service to the protection of public access. He recognises that he must say something about it, but he is not doing anything. Neither the Water Act nor the codes of practice will necessarily prevent the water undertakers, their subsidiaries, holding companies or subsequent owners of the land from blocking public access.
That is a deliberate policy. The Minister had a choice : he could have written into the legislation real constraints on the use of land and access to it, but he chose not to. The cash-register mentality has prevailed. That is the problem with all the regulations--the interests of the new public companies come before those of consumers. That is why we shall vote against the regulations tonight. 7.4 pm
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : The speech of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) typifies the approach to the legislation that the Opposition have adopted from the outset. It was full of wild statements and allegations which the hon. Lady, when questioned, was completely unable to substantiate, although they were bound to give rise to considerable concern in her constituency as well as in those of my hon. Friends. These are serious matters, and they deserve to be dealt with seriously rather than being made the subject of the kind of trivial scaremongering that we have heard from the hon. Lady.
Column 399they are not concerned, why is the Commission receiving more and more complaints from areas where nitrates and aluminium are causing problems?
Mr. Howard : I shall be dealing with the views of the Commission. The fact remains that the hon. Lady made specific allegations about the quality of drinking water in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), and entirely failed to substantiate her challenge to the explanation that has been given of why we may not be able to comply with the Community's nitrate directive in my hon. Friend's constituency by 1993. She maintained her position with a series of generalisations that did not back up her point. That is a disgracefully irresponsible attitude, and the hon. Lady ought to be thoroughly ashamed of herself.
Mrs. Taylor : Does the Minister accept that neither I nor any other Opposition Member is taking action against the Government because of the standard of British drinking water--that it is the European Commission that is doing so?
Mr. Howard : The Commission recently issued a reasoned opinion in respect of drinking water in some restricted areas of the country. The first point to appreciate--this is something that Opposition Members do their utmost to conceal at every opportunity--is that practically every member country of the Community has already been taken to the European Court for breach of the directive. We are the only member country that has yet to appear before that court for breach of an environmental directive, and I am confident that we shall maintain our good record.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : Is there not something odious and wrong about the fact that an unelected body like the European Commission can lay obligations on a sovereign country such as the United Kingdom--obligations that will cause the Government and people of this country great trouble and cost--when that body has no democratic credentials and is responsible to no one but itself? It can make these statements and make others bring forward commitments, and it is no water off its back, to coin a phrase. Is that not democratically odious, and, when he is being frank, does not my hon. and learned Friend have the strongest reservations about it?
Mr. Howard : I think that it would be unwise to travel down the road along which my hon. Friend has tempted me. He used the word "odious", however, and what I find odious are the remarks of people such as the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who, in a broadcast earlier today, welcomed the fact that this country was being taken to the European Court. That is both odious and disgraceful, and another reason for her to be thoroughly ashamed of herself.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : What I said was that I was sorry that it had come to this, and that I wished that the British Government had taken action. If the British Government are not willing to protect drinking water standards in this country, we need to use the Commission to do so. It is the Government who are acting disgracefully.
Mr. Knapman : I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow). Will my hon. and learned Friend therefore speculate on why the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) takes no notice of the letter dated 16 May 1989, which is available in the Library, from the gentleman who purports to have powers over this country, Carlo Ripa di Meana, who said : "I am pleased to say that these discussions have now come to a satisfactory conclusion. The amendments along with the statement which I understand to have been made when introducing these amendments in the House of Lords, satisfy me that the UK Government intends to rectify any deficiencies in water supplies as quickly as possible taking certain practicalities into account."
Is there not an inconsistency in EEC matters?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is right to identify the substantial progress that we made during our discussions with the Commission. However, I want to deal with the one outstanding issue which relates to the nitrates directive and to the fact that we have said that we shall comply with it by 1993, the deadline which the Commission has set for us in all areas except two. We cannot guarantee that we shall be able to comply by 1993 in those two areas because we are not yet certain that the technology exists that can be used without risk to the health of those who live in those areas. These matters are still under discussion with the Commission. Detailed technical discussion of those matters is due to take place tomorrow between officials of the Department and officials of the Commission. I am confident that when the Commission learns at first hand of the technical details as to why it is simply not possible to give a guarantee that we shall comply in those two areas by 1993 it will see the overwhelming good sense of the British Government's case and we shall hear no more about the matter.
Mr. Howard : If the hon. Gentleman had been half as assiduous during our deliberations on the Bill as he purports to be now, he would know the answer to that question because it has been given many times. The drinking water directive came into effect in 1980. As the hon. Member for Dewsbury suggested, it is perfectly true that we signed it in 1980. We, in common with many other member states, assumed that compliance with the directive would be assessed on the basis of the average of the samples that were taken. We wrote to the Commission in 1982 and set out our understanding of how compliance with the directive would be assessed. We received no answer. We assumed that we should be entitled to proceed on the basis that that would be the way in which compliance would be assessed.
Having written in 1982, we received no answer until the end of 1987 when, for the first time, we received a letter from the Commission which said that it proposed to assess compliance with the directive not on the basis of the average of the samples that were taken but on the basis that each and every sample that was taken had to comply with the directive. We are prepared to comply on that
Column 401basis. We have not sought to challenge that interpretation of the directive, but any reasonable person must appreciate that, since that letter arrived only at the end of 1987, to comply with the directive on that basis would inevitably take a little longer than would have been the case if compliance could have been assessed on the basis of the average of the samples, which is what we had assumed to be the case during the long period from 1982 to the end of 1987. That point arose during our discussions last week with the Commission. The version that I have put to the House is in no way in dispute. When I put this version to the Commission, there was no riposte, or come-back, or any attempt to suggest that it was inaccurate in any way. That is the answer to the question of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). It is also the answer to the question that was put more than once by the hon. Member for Dewsbury. That is the reason why we have not yet fully complied in every respect with the European Community's drinking water directive.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : My hon. and learned Friend deserves the sympathy of the House for having to deal with a Commission that is so lax in the way that it operates. I hope that he will bear in mind in his dealings with the Commission the profound dissatisfaction that many Conservative Members feel about the way in which detailed legislation that is proposed in this country is interfered with. I hope that he will do his best to ensure--as I am certain that he will--that the Commission bears fully in mind the needs of each member state when considering such detailed proposals.
Mr. Howard : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps the last observation that I need to make on the matter is that I am confident, as I have already said, that our discussions with the Commission will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the problem without the need for the Commission to take us to the European Court. If the Commission were, notwithstanding all these matters, to take us to the European Court on the issue, I can think of few things that would be more calculated to bring the Commission into disrepute.
As for the remarks of the hon. Member for Dewsbury, is so far as they concern the regulations that are before the House and the Opposition prayer that the regulations should be annulled--
Mr. Marlow : I should like my hon. and learned Friend's views on one other subject. Is it appropriate that a European institution should be responsible for deciding the quality of the drinking water that comes out of the taps in each member state? Should not each member state be able to decide for itself? My hon. and learned Friend has said that he is confident that we shall meet the standards and that we always do, whereas other countries do not. Is he confident that the Portuguese, the French and southern Italy will be able to meet those standards? Are we being picked on? Is there some degree of political spite by the Commission?
Mr. Howard : I can reassure my hon. Friend on his last point. There can be no question of spite. It is certainly not true that we are being picked on, because practically every other member state in the Community has already been taken to court for breach of this directive. My hon. Friend mentioned Portugal. Portugal is a shining exception. It has not yet been taken to the European Court. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the regulations do not yet apply to Portugal since it became a member of the EC only recently.
Mr. Lord : Before my hon. and learned Friend leaves the question of nitrates, is it not the case that throughout most of the country there is no difficulty in meeting the standards but that, in some parts of the country, because of unusual agricultural conditions due to soil types and agricultural practices over the years, many of which are extremely complicated and will take quite a time to sort out, there are peculiar problems as a result of nitrates? They can be removed from drinking water by means of blending and diluting the water in other ways, and that is what we do when we can. However, in order scientifically or chemically to remove nitrates from the water we need new technology which, as yet, we cannot be certain about. Therefore, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, it would be dangerous for us to proceed too quickly. The Government are looking at agricultural practices in those areas with a view to doing something about them, but will if not take some time? Is not my hon. and learned Friend moving forward as fast as he possibly can, given those limitations?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I agree entirely with what he has said, and I am grateful for his intervention which has entirely accurately expressed the position. There is only one important point that I ought to add to what he has said before we leave the subject completely. It is important that people should not be alarmed by the Opposition's scaremongering tactics and their irresponsibility. Even in those few areas where the directive's nitrates level is exceeded, it is important to appreciate that all our advice is to the effect that there is no danger whatever to people's health.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury used generalisations about the regulations and repeated the criticisms of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. We accept its valuable criticisms. We shall put those matters right by means of amending regulations as soon as possible. We have not heard from the hon. Lady any reasons why the House should strike down these regulations. That is what the debate is about and what the Opposition's prayer asks the House to do--to strike down these regulations, which put in place the detail of the regulatory structure that is to be provided under the Water Act 1989 and provide the means of achieving those fundamental environmental improvements to which we are completely committed and which will secure for our people the cleaner water environment that they want. We spent over 300 hours debating the Water Bill. Hardly one of those hours passed without our being told by the Labour party how keen it was to see environmental improvements put in place. At every turn Labour Members assured us that they recognised the mistakes that their party had made and that their record in government was lamentable. They said that they now wanted to improve matters and put those improvements into place.
Column 403At the first opportunity of translating those words into action in respect of these regulations, their reaction is to pray against them, strike them down and deny our people the means of improvement that the regulations represent.
What do the regulations achieve? To what do the Opposition object so violently that they wish to strike them down? Are they the water drinking regulations? For the first time, they incorporate directly into the law of England and Wales the European Community's drinking water directive and, in many respects, go beyond it, imposing standards more stringent and demanding that those in the directive. Our view--this may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)--is that the Commission should not be the final arbiter of drinking water standards in this country and there are respects in which we should go further than the Commission's directive would suggest. When that is the case, we do not hesitate to do so, and that is what the regulations provide. For hour after hour during our debates on the Water Bill, the Opposition told us how keen they were to see the drinking water directive incorporated into our law. We were criticised for not incorporating it directly into statute. Now we have brought forward regulations that will achieve the incorporation of the drinking water directive, and more, into our law. What on earth are the Opposition doing voting against it, seeking to strike it down, seeking to deny our people the benefits that this provision will secure?
Why do the Opposition want to strike down the regulations that will give effect to customer service standards and the payments that the new companies will have to make when they breach them? The regulations provide for the £5 cash payment or credit for each occasion or day on which certain standards are not met. Why do the Opposition want to deny that benefit to customers of the privatised water industry?
Why do the Opposition want to strike down the regulations that provide for some of the details of the operations of the National Rivers Authority, increasingly recognised as the strongest environmental protection agency in Europe? Hour after hour in debate on the Water Bill we were told that the NRA lacked teeth. In many respects, these regulations give it those teeth. The Opposition's immediate reaction is to seek to extract them by striking down these regulations.
Mr. Cash : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, contrary to the views that are consistently expressed by the Opposition, including the Front Bench, on matters relating to water and water pollution, Conservative Governments have consistently--all the way through, from 1875, to 1936 and 1974--introduced legislation to improve trade effluents and deal with pollution? The whole of the Opposition's policy is constructed on a consistent policy of hypocrisy.
Mr. Howard : I know far better than to take issue with my hon. Friend on any matter relating to the 19th century, but I am happy to be able to agree fully not only with his reference to what happened in that century but with his more recent references. He is right ; we have always taken these matters seriously. One need look no further than the history of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the
Column 404Labour Government's shameful neglect to implement it and do anything that would have enabled the public to play a part in monitoring water pollution. Labour's record--or lack of it--speaks for itself.
Why does the Labour party wish to strike down the provision for the code of practice on conservation, access and recreation? This document, in draft, was described by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), whom I am delighted to see in his place, as fine in principle and welcomed by many organisations. Since then it has been further improved. It is an important step in ensuring that the privatised water industry acts in accordance with the considerable duties laid upon it in the Water Act. What on earth is the Labour party doing in seeking to strike down the order that gives effect to that code of practice? Labour's attitude passes all comprehension.
I shall explain to the House exactly what the regulations and orders will achieve and why it is so important for the future of our water environment that they be approved by the House. The drinking water quality regulations are perhaps the most important of all these measures. If there were any doubts about the Government's commitment to high quality water supplies and to full implementation of the Community's drinking water directive, those doubts must surely now be laid to rest. The regulations comprise a comprehensive system for safeguarding the quality of our water supplies.
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green) : My hon. and learned Friend has just said that the regulations are a comprehensive scheme for protecting our water supply. I understand that the regulations relate only to drinking water. As he knows, the Environment Select Committee was concerned with wider problems of water quality. Can my hon. and learned Friend say when those other matters--for example, river quality--will be tackled and, in particular, give the timetable for laying down water quality objectives under section 105 of the Water Act?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am dealing with the measures that cover the drinking water regulations. Other regulations before the House touch on those wider matters, including the powers of the National Rivers Authority and the extent to which the public will have access to records on river water quality. My hon. Friend is right : the regulations do not deal with river water quality standards.
We want to deal with those matters as soon as we reasonably can, but I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it would be sensible to await the NRA's advice before these standards are set. That is one of the more important functions of the NRA. It will advise the Secretary of State on the setting of the standards and, when they have been set, the NRA will have the important task of regulating discharges to ensure that those standards are met. We are some way off putting those standards into place, for the good reason--which I hope that my hon. Friend will accept--that it is important to have the NRA's advice before we take that step.
The drinking water regulations fully incorporate the stringent requirements of the Community directive directly into our law and go well beyond it in a number of important respects. They make it absolutely clear that all water supplies must comply not only with the European Community's quality standards but with 14 additional
Column 405national standards. These include controls on certain chlorinated solvents, copper and zinc and acidity. The lead standard is also tighter than the one set in the directive. We believe that it is important to continue reducing people's exposure to lead from any source.
The regulations provide for frequent monitoring and analysis. They lay down minimum sampling frequencies far higher than those in the directive. For example, the regulations specify monitoring frequencies for aluminium, iron and manganese at least four times higher than those in the directive. They require sampling normally to be done at the consumer's tap and impose requirements relating to the collection and analysis of samples, with laboratories subjected to independent quality control checks. In addition, the drinking water inspectorate to be established shortly will check on the water undertakers' monitoring and analysis.
There are a number of new requirements for water treatment. All water supplied will have to meet certain minimum treatment requirements. Many more water supplies than now will have to be treated to reduce plumbo- solvency. No new chemical or product will be able to be used in treatment or mains relining unless its use has been approved by the Secretary of State.
The availability of information on water quality is crucial. People are entitled to full information about the quality of their water supply. For the first time, comprehensive information on water quality will be published regularly in a way that highlights whether supplies are complying with the quality standards and, if they are not, what is being done about it. A public record containing information about analytical results for every water supply zone will be established from next January. It will show clearly whether samples comply with the standards set in the regulations, particulars of any relaxations from the standards granted by the Secretary of State, details of any undertakings given under section 20(5)(b) of the Water Act for each zone and progress with those undertakings. The public record will be held at all water offices normally open to the public, and the address and telephone number of one of these offices will be on the annual water bill sent to each customer.
Mrs. Taylor : Is the Minister saying, therefore, that there will be completely open access to and complete accountability of all information? Can the Minister go further and say whether that information will be presented in a form that is understandable by the layman, or are we to see computer print-outs such as the present print-outs, which are coded and virtually unintelligible to the layman? That is not proper access to information, is it?