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Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North) : I remind hon. Members of the serious contamination incident that took place just over a year ago in my constituency. I speak the day before publication of the independent health panel's report on that incident. Various aspects of the regulations relate to it and I should like to make a few brief comments about them.
However, I should like first to refer to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey), who spoke on behalf of the Democrats. I do not know whether my colleagues share my view, but I am unclear whether the Democrats intend to oppose or to support these regulations. Hon. Members who represent constituencies that have an historic involvement with his party-- under whatever name it trades--will not be surprised at that, because there has been considerable confusion about where they stand on a range of issues. I say to the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), in the absence of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who made a speech at the start of this debate, that there will be considerable astonishment in Camelford, given the interest that Labour Members appeared to have in the Camelford incident, and given the number of references that they made to it during the debate, that they intend to vote against these regulations.
The Opposition's constant criticism has left the clear impression that their sole objective is to stop privatisation. They want to find every possible accusation to level at the Government to try to stop privatisation, and they do not want to give credit for any of the regulations.
One need only take a cursory look through the regulations to see that they offer a range of measures which will be far more helpful to the consumer than any that existed before. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) in congratulating my hon. and learned Friend the Minister on his work to ensure that these provisions were brought before the House on behalf of the consumer.
As my hon. and learned Friend said, there will be far clearer powers over environmental health cover through local authorities. Water authorities will have to provide much more information about the way in which their laboratories are run. A series of provisions in the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 1989 are fundamentally helpful to the consumer.
Bearing in mind the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House still wish to speak, I shall concentrate on one part of the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations. There will be great relief and pleasure because of regulation 30, particularly because of subsections (5) and (6), which, brief as they are, should be repeated. They provide :
"(5) A water undertaker shall notify a local authority and a district health authority as soon as may be after the occurrence of any event which, by reason of its effect or likely effect on the water supplied by it, gives rise or is likely to give rise to a significant risk to the health of persons residing in the authority's area.
(6) An authority who have received a notification under paragraph (5) may require the water undertaker to provide them with such information relating to the event and its consequences as they may reasonably require."
I have to tell my hon. and learned Friend, who has been exceedingly helpful throughout the Camelford incident and its aftermath, that it is astounding that, in this day and
Column 419age, the House finds it necessary to include that provision in regulations. I do not deny that it is now essential that it should. At Camelford, 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphide were dumped into the drinking water and the water supply of 20,000 people was affected. Who would have imagined that the water authority would decide not to tell the public health authority and the environmental health authority the truth for some weeks?
My hon. and learned Friend will recall--he saw me then--that at the time I said that one of the most astounding features was that there was no statutory requirement on water authorities to inform the health authority and the environmental health officers. He said then that the Government would give the most serious consideration to this. I can only thank him for including these provisions in the regulations.
Given the criticism of these regulations, what my hon. and learned Friend said at the Dispatch Box is worthy of note. He is aiming for far greater honesty with the consumer. This is the whole purpose of the regulations. He does not want--no sensible person would--any of the information to be doctored. Any information obtained by consumers must represent a direct copy of what has been produced in accordance with the sampling processes under these regulations.
By providing that information and being honest with the public, we shall save ourselves from what has happened in north Cornwall over the past 12 months as a result of the deceit of the water authority, which did not release the facts about what had caused the incident. That deceit infected every honourable statement made subsequently by any organisation. No matter what the independent health panel says tomorrow--it is my sincere hope that it will have discovered that there is no permanent health damage, which has been the hope of all of us since the incident--and no matter the lengths to which it has gone to analyse what happened, great doubt was instilled in people's minds as a result of the water authority's inability to tell the truth.
Among the many welcome regulations, this one is vital in ensuring that should such an incident recur, through accident or whatever cause, the water authority concerned will make what has happened known to the environmental health office and the health authority. It should also make available every possible source of information that either of those two authorities needs to protect the health of the people in its area.
We have heard a great deal of criticism about the Government's desire to privatise the water industry. If I had any doubts about this before the Camelford incident, I have not the slightest doubt now. That incident was caused by a public utility, a state-controlled body, which manifested the most shocking quality of management. It was able to exercise a monopoly not only over the supply but over the information processes, the responsibility for pollution and so on. The Government's wisdom is shown in these regulations and in the Water Act itself. It is vital that we separate those processes and give the state, through the Secretary of State, clear-cut powers of control and of monitoring, through the drinking water inspectorate. The Camelford incident showed how welcome this move is. That should be separate from the supply of water, which
Column 420must be carried out under stringent regulations laid down in the Act, in these statutory instruments and no doubt in subsequent measures.
Mr. Mullin : Who does the hon. Gentleman think will be in charge of the South-West water authority, about which he used the word "deceit", after privatisation? Will the same Mr. Keith Court be responsible, on higher pay?
Mr. Neale : The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that that decision is not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He will also know, if he has studied the matter carefully, that at the time of the incident my view was that the chairman should have resigned. Everything that has happened since the incident has vindicated that view. I said then, and I still believe, that he could not possibly have known what was going on when it happened, but he did know shortly afterwards and he chose not to inform the public. Subsequently, to his credit, he apologised for not doing so. For that reason, if for no other, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister deserves credit for making certain through these regulations that never again will it be possible for a water undertaking, whether inadvertently or negligently, to cause such an incident and then to avoid telling the health authority and the environmental health organisation what happened, and giving them all the information that they require. That offers far better protection than do many of the other elements in these regulations. My hon. and learned Friend will have the whole-hearted support of Conservative Members, and I congratulate him on introducing the regulations.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I am honoured that the Minister thinks that any endorsement that I have given to the code of practice in the conservation, access and leisure regulation recommends it for public consumption. If the Minister accepts some of what I shall say, I shall be happy to give my whole-hearted endorsement to the code of practice. He can even stamp on the bottom, "As recommended by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe" if he deals with these points.
The main thrust of the measures in the code of practice is fine. They have been well thought out and well written, because they were recommended by the Nature Conservancy Council. That is a Government organisation for which I have nothing but the utmost respect. Therefore, it is a tragedy that the organisation in which the Minister was indirectly lavishing praise for drawing up this document is to be reorganised and broken up. One cannot have a great deal of confidence in a Government who treat one of their most effective bodies in this way.
As it is likely that the Secretary of State will no longer be in his position soon, I hope that his successor will think carefully about the way that the NCC has been treated. If the Government's commitment to conservation is to have any credibility, they need bodies such as the NCC, with its expertise, commitment and experience, to put a gloss on any Government measure dealing with conservation. Let me deal with the reasons why I think that the regulation on the code of practice should be voted against unless it is changed. First, we see a great weakness in the enforcement of the code. Section 10(2) of the Act states :
"A contravention of a code of practice as for the time being approved under this section shall not of itself constitute a contravention of any requirement imposed by section 8 or 9
Column 421above or give rise to any criminal or civil liability, but the Secretary of State and the Minister shall each be under a duty to take into account whether there has been or is likely to be any such contravention in determining when and how he should exercise his powers by virtue of this Act."
What steps would the Minister take in enforcing the regulation if it were found that a supplier was breaking it? The Minister would find that he had a bit of a problem. That is one of our main objections to the privatisation of water. Would the Minister take away the licence of the water plc? There would be nobody else or nothing else to replace the plc. Exactly what measures, hold, control or sanctions does the Minister have over the water plcs and how will he use them?
The Minister said that the code of practice is not the same as the measure that we were discussing and he argued that it has been strengthened. It is true that during the Bill's consideration in another place the Government accepted some sensible changes on the lines of amendments that we tabled in Committee. Everyone would have been saved a great deal of time and trouble if the Government had accepted amendments then instead of waiting until the Bill was considered in another place. I welcome the changes that have been made to the Bill, strengthening the code of practice, but parts of it have been changed for the worse and there are some serious weaknesses.
The priority given to nature conservation seems to have been lowered by the priority that has been given to leisure interests. I am not saying that nature conservation should always be put in the way of leisure interests and that there should be some special consideration that is not already present, but I think that the leisure organisations and groups would recognise that one of the great money-spinning potentials of privatising water is the commercial development of leisure facilities at reservoirs and on land that the companies own.
When the code of practice was in draft form, it suggested that if there were a conflict between leisure interests and conservation interests, conservation interests would be given priority. That is no longer clear in the new code of practice. There is a concern that when there is a conflict of interest the commercial leisure interest will succeed over the conservation interests. That is a real threat. We discussed in Committee examples which were set out in a journal entitled "Liquid Assets", which was published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. The journal demonstrated that there are conflicts already at some of our major reservoirs.
Mr. Pike : I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the Ramblers Association's concern that North West Water is considering developing a theme park at Rivington Pike which will bring the commercial interests very much to the fore.
Mr. Morley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing that example. It shows that there is already a conflict between leisure and recreation interests, the commercial motive behind them, and conservation interests. Another example is Rutland water, where there has been a conflict involving the extension of fishing licences in various parts of the reservoir and the need to keep parts of the reservoir available for wintering wild fowl. There will be other conflicts. There is a clear conflict between the leisure use of power boats for water skiing, for
Column 422example, and the interests of wildlife. There are conflicts about the siting of marinas and timeshare developments and wetland habitats. The conflicts are numerous.
When there is a conflict, who will decide what come
first--conservation interests or leisure interests? How clearly will attitudes towards zoning various water board lands and reservoirs for various interests and activities be taken into account? Once the water authorities have been privatised, what hold will the Minister have over them if they break the existing agreements--many of them are voluntary-- with the various conservation groups in the management of their areas and the demands of their shareholders to maximise their revenue by developing commercial leisure interests? That is the major weakness in the code of practice and it is one which needs to be addressed. Unless the Minister can convince me that there are safeguards, I believe that we should reject the measure.
There are one or two smaller issues. We discussed the emergency operation procedure in Committee. The draft code of practice made it clear that when emergency procedures were being carried out by water authorities, the NCC would be consulted. I know that there are procedures for this when sites of special scientific interest are involved, but there are sensitive areas that do not have that status. There needs to be some protection for them so that the NCC can use its experience and expertise to advise water plcs on how to carry out repairs when there is an emergency. I have in mind drainage and the building of flood banks. We must ensure that there is the minimum amount of damage to sensitive areas.
In the draft document, plans were set out for annual consultation with conservation bodies. There is still provision for such consultation in the code, but it is no longer on an annual basis. I wonder why that alteration has been made.
The main conservation bodies are well known to the Government and they consult them, but in certain areas, on water board land, there are issues that require the attention of specialists. There is a need to involve various organisations that have a specialist interest, whether in orchids, moths or butterflies. I am not sure that in certain circumstances the consultation of specialists will take place and that we shall have the benefit of their advice.
There seems to be nothing in the code of practice that will make the water plcs take into account the effect of discharges on flora and fauna. Great damage can be caused in terms of the ecology of water courses if the nutrient enrichment of certain areas goes over certain levels. There are EC directives that cover the pollution of rivers and take into account wildlife. I suspect that the Government are in breach of some of the directives because they have given discharge consents to various sewage works without taking into account the effect that that will have on wildlife. The Government may find themselves in court on more than one issue if they do not take the effect of discharges into account.
I have raised some of the main issues that involve the code of practice, conservation and recreation. There are others that I know my hon. Friends will cover, especially the protection of access for ramblers. I do not believe that the code goes far enough in that direction. When it comes to nature conservation--I return to my original point--the code is fine in theory. It has taken into account many of the issues that I wanted to be considered, but I am not convinced that it can be applied successfully to ensure that water plcs take its provisions into account. With the
Column 423conflict that will inevitably come between leisure and recreational use and conservation, I believe that there is a serious weakness. 8.49 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : If we did not enjoy politics, most of us would not be here. However, certain issues are so important that politics should take a back seat, and one of those is public health and safety. That was very much on my mind during the quite disgraceful speech of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). I am sorry that she has not remained in the Chamber to listen to the debate because I wanted to tell her about what is happening in Lincolnshire over the issue of nitrates. Lincolnshire is in the east midlands, an area of traditional arable farming. There is considerable concern not just among the general public but among the farming community about the use of nitrates. The debate rages. We are told that there is no hard evidence that nitrates are injurious to health--yet the Government are taking the issue seriously and, I have no doubt, will act. It may be necessary for denitrification plants to be set up in certain areas, such as my constituency. We are told that the technology is not yet proven. If the Labour party were to have its way--and on this issue I can assume only that it is playing politics--and we accepted its ludicrous suggestions, denitrification plants would be set up that might prove more dangerous than the possible dangers of the current position. These are highly technical matters. I shall not debate tonight whether it was wise for Britain or other nations to sign the directive. I have my doubts about the wisdom of the Commission becoming involved in the detail of drinking water policy. My view is that it is par excellence--to use a French expression--a region where national Governments should take precedence over the Commission. Nevertheless, the directive was signed. The Government are arguing a fair case--that they signed the directive, intend fully to carry it out, but that there are certain difficulties in doing so, not least practical difficulties such as planning. It has nothing to do with money ; in some cases it may be impossible to carry out the directive in time.
I can only assume that the hon. Member for Dewsbury was, once again, playing politics and was not really concerned with public safety when she suggested that we could implement the directive by 1993. I cannot believe that she was serious. As I understand it--of course, I may be wrong--we are actually going further than the original proposals. We are tightening procedures, but we are not carping or playing politics ; we are simply trying to do our best for the British people. The Government should be congratulated on that. We are talking about sampling, treatment and controls that we have not previously had. We have never had a drinking water inspectorate. During our last short debate on these matters my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) spoke at length on access to Barn Elm reservoir, a matter which greatly concerns him. I spent about 20 years of my life living only a few yards from that reservoir, so I know what access to it has been like over the years that it has been controlled by a nationalised industry. Quite simply, there has been no access ; there has been no
Column 424recreation. One of the advantages of bringing this sort of legislation before Parliament is that the scrutiny will ensure that access to reservoirs and land owned by water authorities will be better for recreational and conservation interests than it has ever been before-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) may laugh, but he must recognise what has happened over many years with land owned by water authorities.
Mr. Morley : I was mildly amused because I know that already fencing is being erected on land in the Yorkshire water authority area that has traditionally been walked over. That is being done in advance of this legislation. The land is being put into a wholly owned holding company ready for the Yorkshire water authority to cash in on privatisation--and it certainly will not be for conservation or leisure.
Mr. Leigh : The hon. Gentleman is always ready to produce anecdotal evidence, but he is not prepared to study the provisions in the legislation. For the first time, statutory requirements are laid down. The hon. Gentleman is not prepared to study the code of practice--
I wish briefly to deal with the K factor. I have often argued the case with my constituents--and I think that I have convinced them--that we will achieve the best of both worlds because although we will have private water companies that will attract private investment, they will not be wholly independent. They can only set a price laid down by the indpendent director of water services. I know that there must be a balance with K, but I have been impressed with the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) that we should place more emphasis on ploughing back profits into conservation measures and improving quality.
The Government should explain--and they should begin now--that, unfortunately, charges will have to rise. There is no doubt about that. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I say that they have to rise because there has been gross under-investment in the water industry for many years. I shall not discuss what happened under the last Labour Government--we have had all those arguments--but we should now admit to the British people that we cannot escape an increase in charges. The charges are not related to the profit motive that Opposition Members claim to be the point of the legislation ; they relate to improving quality and to ensuring that investment is ploughed back for the benefit of consumers. There will be a balance between the consumers and those who invest in the industry. In the long term there will be a strong code of practice, improved access and recreation. For the first time, that code will set down the most rigid standards of wholesomeness and there will be a K factor that will ensure decent investment in the industry to the benefit of all. I should have thought that any objective observer, looking at the issue in that way, would conclude that we have it about right.
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Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) : The House is debating 15 sets of regulations concerned with various aspects of the new water industry, but I shall comment only on pollution. I question whether there is any meaning or relevance in regulations to control pollution when we are all aware that the Government effectively announced an amnesty on prosecutions for pollution in the run-in to privatisation. I make no excuses for being somewhat parochial in my view of pollution. Water is a major political issue and a matter of deep concern for Yorkshire people because of the river pollution problems that Yorkshire has faced for a number of years. Earlier, the Minister accused Opposition Members of making wild statements and allegations. Recent press reports on the state of the Humber estuary cannot be said to be wild statements or allegations because they were backed by facts. It appears that the Humber is now polluting the North sea and many other rivers on the east coast. That worries not only my constituents but those of my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).
As to the regulations relating to sampling, the recent National Rivers Authority working group report made the point that present analysis of the Humber estuary is of little value for the purposes of water quality management because some of the pollutants discharged into the Humber have not even been identified. Therefore, I question the relevance of the regulations to the problems of the Humber estuary. I question whether they give the NRA sufficient powers to prosecute those responsible for the Humber's major pollution problems.
Greenpeace estimates that discharges from no fewer than 1,500 pipelines are polluting the Humber, with complete immunity for those responsible. Those discharges come from sewage works owned by Yorkshire Water itself, metal smelting plants, oil refineries and chemical complexes. Numerous different types of discharges are all contributing to major pollution of the North sea, which is something that should deeply concern and worry us all. We should see what we can do to improve upon that appalling situation.
The Humber is a receptacle for 300 miles or more of class 3 rivers in Yorkshire Water's area and for 90 miles of class 4 rivers. They are the most appalling and dead rivers in the country. They emanate from south Yorkshire and were debated in Committee.
The end of the line has been reached for the policies of Yorkshire Water, whose incredible complacency towards pollution has led to the problems now facing the Humber estuary. In the run-up to privatisation, the policy of Yorkshire rivers has markedly deteriorated. The hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), who earlier intervened but left the Chamber a considerable time ago, made the pont that the Government are not themselves responsible for the lower quality of river water. If, after 10 years in authority, the Government cannot be said to be responsible, who can?
I cite the example of Driffield canal, which is in a predominantly urban area and not one having many industries. In the course of a decade, that canal has been transformed from a pleasant waterway with an abundance of fish and wildlife to slow-moving, black sludge. The prime polluter of that canal is Yorkshire Water, which has allowed sewage consent levels to rise five times higher
Column 426because its nearby sewerage works could not, some considerable time ago, meet the required consents. That led directly to the deterioration of that once beautiful waterway to what is now slow- moving, black sludge.
Few people in Yorkshire are celebrating the recent announcement by Yorkshire Water of a 27.5 per cent. increase in its profits to £56.5 million. Record profits were also recorded for the previous year. In the run-up to privatisation, Yorkshire Water is fattening up its organisation to attract investors. Imagine what could have been done with that £56.5 million in dealing with the problems of the Humber estuary, Driffield canal and Yorkshire's class 3 and class 4 rivers, as well as with the sewage works owned by Yorkshire Water. A good deal could have been done with it. The move towards privatisation has allowed pollution to continue.
What could have been done with the £700,000 that Yorkshire water has spent in the past financial year on paying advisers on privatisation? What could have been done with the money put towards the £20 million spent on the Water Authority Association's propaganda campaign--especially the £1.1 million spent in Yorkshire on regional advertising propaganda, a sum dragged out of Gordon Jones in recent days?
When we consider that a blind eye has been turned to the real cause of pollution in areas such as mine, the regulations become largely meaningless. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friends and others : this is a worrying situation, and news of a pollution amnesty gives me no great confidence that the regulations will improve it. 9.5 pm
Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test) : Let me add my voice to the congratulations that have been conferred on the Department and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister on the able way in which a difficult Bill has been handled--and, moreover, on preventing the House from having to sit into the first week of August. I think that we are all very grateful for that.
I wish to speak only because I do not believe that the regulations cover a serious problem in the Southampton area. Part of the problem has been caused by a Greenpeace ship, the Moby Dick, which came up the Solent. The crew tied a wire around the propeller of the sludge vessel that distributes sewage--after some sort of treatment--into the Solent, and the Southern water authority warned that if it was not removed within three days raw sewage would go into the Solent. Unfortunately, a different Department issues the licence. I think that there should be a gathering of great minds. The Ministry of Agriculture, which issues the licence for the dumping of sludge in an area just five miles south of the Isle of Wight, has been doing so for many years, and those who have monitored the site-- certainly the Ministry's inspectors--have said that such dumping causes no harm either to the environment or to fish stocks. That may well be so, but will the Commission take it on board for another 20 years? I believe that an industrial process is the answer. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, contain four depots. The reservoirs fill up quickly with raw sewage which, on being treated, takes on the consistency of a thick paste. It is then taken to an area south of the Isle of Wight and discharged.
Column 427Quite often, human nature being what it is, the ship leaves a trail of sludge leading to the dumping area. I have already asked the Minister of Agriculture to ensure that the actions of the crew, the dumping process and the licences are well monitored.
When I met the chairman and directors of the Southern water authority on one of the sites in the sludge farm in Marchwood, I feared that they were in no way prepared to spend many millions of pounds on industrial treatment. Apparently a firm in the midlands--BVH--turns the sludge into oil or graphite which can in turn be turned into burning bricks for generating plants.
We must think again about the treatment of sewage. We can no longer, because of our Community connections, continue with the old methods of disposing of raw sewage, or partly treated sewage. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will bear that point in mind. However, with the privatisation of 10 water authorities, he is faced with a difficult problem, and I wish him the best of luck.
Mr. Howard : With permission, Mr. Speaker, may I say that, rather against the odds, we have had an interesting debate? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) and his brother. My hon. Friend made some powerful points. We have yet to get any answers to them from the Opposition. He put his points in the form of questions that have yet to be answered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) spoke, on the basis of his particular constituency experience, of the difficulties that can arise. At all times, he has been most assiduous and motivated by the determination to ensure that what happened in his constituency about a year ago should not, if at all possible, happen again but that, if it ever happened again, proper procedures should be in place to deal with some of the consequences. We have listened carefully to the points that he has put to us from time to time and we have been able to incorporate some of his suggestions in the regulations. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the determination with which he has pursued those questions, not only on behalf of his constituents but also in the wider interests of all our constituents so as to ensure that incidents of that kind do not recur.
In a characteristically robust contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) made some important points about public health and safety. They, too, have not been answered by the Opposition. We look forward with great interest to the speech which is to be made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). I cannot say that the hon. Gentleman's track record in answering questions is such as to inspire confidence that we shall receive any convincing answers during his speech, but we always live in hope. He may be able to answer the legitimate questions that have been put to him during the debate about the Opposition's attitude. It is their attitude that has posed so many questions during the debate and they have been signally unprepared to answer them.
Column 428My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) asked a number of questions which he recognised were the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend the Member for Test appreciates that those are questions that should be put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I know that his questions will be considered seriously by my right hon. Friend, for I shall draw them to his attention.
Answers to questions have been requested.
Mr. Howard : I am very happy to answer them, as I did during my earlier speech. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) asked a large number of questions and I shall deal with the points that he raised. He asked about the medical advice that we have received about the nitrates standard on the basis of average samples which we originally understood to be the basis on which compliance with the European Community directive was to be assessed. I am happy to respond to that point. Our advice from the chief medical officer was that 50 mgl was the appropriate standard to be interpreted as an average, provided the concentration in any sample did not exceed 100 mgl. We acted on that advice and were convinced that it was sensible and reasonable to approach this matter on the basis that average samples were sufficient.
The hon. Gentleman made an assertion about the effect of these regulations on the radioactive waste regulations and the Radioactive Substances Act 1960. I am happy to tell him that these regulations do not affect the application of the 1960 Act. They deal with the radioactivity of the discharge. The radioactive properties of any waste will continue to be governed by the 1960 Act.
The hon. Gentleman asked also in what circumstances the relaxations that the Secretary of State would be empowered to give under regulation 4 of the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations might be granted. Those powers directly reflect those that are contained in the drinking water directive, which grants powers to make relaxations when there is a mechanical breakdown, when there are exceptional meteorological conditions or in circumstances arising from the nature and structure of the ground. The circumstances in which those relaxations are likely to be granted mirror those that are contained in the drinking water directive.
The hon. Gentleman said that Statutory Instrument No. 1151 allowed the Secretary of State to undermine the National Rivers Authority by granting discharge consents with lax standards. He is wrong. It does nothing more than set out the procedures for appeals to the Secretary of State as provided for under schedule 12 to the Water Act 1989. The hon. Gentleman's point was based on a misapprehension.
I was surprised to see the hon. Gentleman nod his head vigorously in agreement with a point that was made by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)
Column 429about the Nature Conservancy Council. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe was complaining about the recent decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the NCC. One of the important effects of my right hon. Friend's decision was to make a separate Nature Conservancy Council for Wales.
Mr. Livsey indicated assent.
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman now shows from a sedentary position that he welcomes that decision. When the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe was criticising it, he vigorously nodded in assent. The hon. Gentleman must decide what his position is. I am glad that that decision has his support. I hope that it will have the support also of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, who perhaps will tell us whether he agrees with his hon. Friend and whether he thinks that it was a good or bad idea to have a separate Nature Conservancy Council for Wales. We look forward with great interest to hearing his answer.
The conclusion to be drawn from the Labour party's stance on these statutory instruments--the only one that can reasonably be drawn--is that it does not wish to improve drinking water quality standards or our pollution control systems, that it does not support the issuing of guidance on good practice in conservation, and that it does not want customers to have the right to compensation for breach of standards. The party that boasts about its support for open government does not want to support even the moves for greater accountability in the control of pollution provisions and arrangements for access to the register of the Director General of Water Supply. Perhaps the only form of open government that the Labour party is prepared to support is leaked documents and the information contained in them.
The Opposition have made no case for the annulment of the instruments. I invite the House to join with those who welcome the Government's prompt action to complete the new environmental regime needed before vesting and to reject this utterly irresponsible attempt to obstruct and frustrate the progress they will achieve. 9.20 pm
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : The Government's plan to privatise water has long been recognised, in the words of a Conservative Back-Bench Member, as deservedly unpopular with members of the public of all political persuasions. During its passage, it has become increasingly complex, with a web of bureaucracy being woven to compensate for the manifest defects in the Government's plans. Today we come to the last legislative step in the process--or almost the last. I say that because, as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has exposed, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) underlined in her opening speech, these statutory instruments need to be amended now, even before they are adopted, simply so that they will make sense. It appears that the Government intend to bring in those amendments during the recess and to discuss them only after implementing the regulations and after the House returns. What a mess. Is it surprising that we should pray against this unsatisfactory set of documents?
It is ludicrous to have three hours to debate all 15 documents, given the importance that we place on trying
Column 430to rescue the water industry from this mess and building the best possible protection for the public into the system. Time is short, so I can touch only briefly on some of the important issues underlying the many contributions to tonight's debate, each of which is worthy of separate scrutiny.
Let us look, for example, at Statutory Instrument No. 1151--the Control of Pollution (Consents for Discharges etc.) (Secretary of State Functions) Regulations. Here we see the power of the Secretary of State to call in applications for consent if asked to do so. Can we trust the Secretary of State being set as an arbiter above the National Rivers Authority and able to override it? Let us consider the experience with planning powers over the past few years. The Government are increasingly using the powers of the Secretary of State to remove or override provisions that were enacted to protect the public. We cannot trust the Secretary of State and we cannot trust the Government.
Mr. Howard : Is the hon. Gentleman now suggesting that it is his party's policy to eliminate call-in powers in planning applications? If it is not his view that those call-in powers should be eliminated, why is it wrong to have comparable powers in relation to water control?
Mr. Michael : My case is that the call-in powers and the powers of appeal have been abused under this Government to a shocking extent. They have used those powers to undermine the decisions of this House.
When we turn to the statutory instruments on supply and sewerage services and customer service standards, we see the Government's innovation of the £5 fine. That sounded rather attractive when we started off. However, when one looks at it and at the application, it is, of course, nominal and surrounded by caveats. If
"the complaint is frivolous or vexatious",
the fine need not be paid. That is necessary, but who decides? The Joint Committee's findings are most telling of all. It said : "Regulation 5(2) makes water or sewerage undertakers liable in ordinary circumstances to pay £5 to a customer who has made a complaint in writing if they do not within 10 days send him either a substantive reply or an initial reply which explains why there cannot be an immediate substantive reply and says that a substantive reply will be sent within 20 days from the receipt of the complaint".
The Committee points out that there was no provision for any payment if the promise of a substantive reply was not kept, and the Minister has not answered that point in today's debate. That is shirking. The prescribed standard requires the promise to be made, but does not require it to be implemented. That is complete nonsense. It is not a drafting error ; it is a major basic defect which reflects the Government's grave concern about whether they will be able to con the City into buying what the public do not want to sell.
Mr. Cryer : That was one of a number of points made by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Officials from the Minister's Department promised several new amendments to the regulations that are to be laid, presumably when Parliament is not sitting, to correct the hastily drafted regulations that are being forced through Parliament. Parliamentary rights are being trampled on, and my hon. Friend has given an excellent example of our concerns.
Mr. Michael : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting my point with such authority. It is a very serious point and the Minister completely failed to answer it during the debate. Let us examine the Water Reorganisation (Pensions etc.) Regulations--
The Joint Committee drew the special attention of both Houses to the instrument on pensions on the ground that the drafting was defective. What have we heard about that?
Let us examine the code of practice on conservation, access and recreation. Time is so short that I cannot go into the details of its defects, but I shall answer one point that the Minister made. He mentioned a separate Nature Conservancy Council for Wales. That is less important than the Opposition's proposal, which Conservative Members voted down, for a separate Rivers Authority for Wales. We demanded subsequently that meat should be put on the bones of the committee that is to advise the Secretary of State on matters affecting Wales. The Committee appears in the Act, but there is no meat on its bones ; it has no real powers and it has no real authority. It is a failure of will on the part of Ministers who should represent Wales.
As I said, the code on conservation, access and recreation contains several weaknesses. If the Government were serious about protecting and promoting public access, a number of measures could have a beneficial effect. The most important of those concerns enforcement. No matter how weak or strong the code is, section 10(2) of the Water Act makes it clear that
"contravention of the code shall not constitute a contravention of any requirement imposed by section 8 or 9 of the Act."
That means that the water undertakers will be free to ignore the code completely and to have regard only to the duties in sections 8 and 9. The provision is the only sanction available and the Minister should have said that he intended to give some reality to the code by using that sanction. Only if the Government intended to use that sanction--because the Act is otherwise so weak--would there be any sense or meaning or depth to the code.
Then we come to the control of pollution registers on which many important points have been made. The regulations specify that information on derogations has to be made available to the public. The Minister and Conservative Members have said that time is needed to introduce schemes to put right the present illegal discharges. I use that term because a derogation is a sort of probation period for the polluter, during which specified time a scheme of works is to be undertaken to end the illegality.
Last week, like other hon. Members, I examined the details of the recent rash of applications for derogations--in my case, those in Wales. The information is available in St. Mellons which, while inconvenient for most of Wales, is relatively convenient for me as it is in my constituency. Like other members of the public who have been able to make the approach, I was received courteously and my questions were answered--at least until I asked for the information about the schemes of work. I was told that the information is not kept ; it is not available ; the Government do not require it.