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Mr. Maxton : That is a large amount. Presumably the chairmanship of a board will be a part-time job. It will go to some business man or lawyer friend of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. The Bill should be known as the Stewart Memorial Bill, as it was designed to save his seat. He will appoint his friends as chairmen of the new boards and their salaries will have to come out of the money put aside for the "exercise of their functions". A local authority committee on water and sewerage would not pay itself the sort of salaries that the new boards will command.
What is most dangerous about the resolution is the way in which it gives the Secretary of State power to push public opinion towards accepting, or at least being prepared to consider the eventual privatisation of water. It gives him the power to take such sums "as he may direct". He may therefore say to the boards, "You are to pay me X amount." That will mean that the charges set by a board just to maintain its services to its customers and to pay off
Column 653its debt will be forced up. The Government are hoping that, as the boards have to undertake investment to bring water and sewage up to EC standards, and as the Government have the power to force charges up as high as they want, Scottish people will see their water charges rise and, with a little propaganda, will eventually say, "Well, we don't like it, but if water were in private hands it might be cheaper because the companies could sell things off and operate differently from the boards."
The most dangerous part of this Ways and Means resolution is the power that it gives the Secretary of State to take whatever money he wants from the new boards, forcing the boards to put up prices and, as a result, pushing people into accepting privatisation. I do not believe that the Scottish people will ever want water and sewerage to be privatised, as they made clear when the Government issued their consultation document on the matter. They made it so clear that the Government had to back down. Whatever some people may say, I believe that the Government were intent on privatising water and sewerage until they felt the weight of opinion not just of the Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrat parties but of their own supporters in Scotland. They then had to back down.
Instead, the Government decided on a halfway house. This Ways and Means resolution is part of that halfway house and I shall vote against it when the time comes tonight.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : This resolution is yet another increase in central Government powers and contradicts yet again the Government's claims that it is a decentralisation measure. Through the resolution, the Secretary of State is taking more control to himself.
The resolution authorises
"the Secretary of State to direct a water and sewerage authority established by the Act to pay him such sums as he may direct". That is compulsion. The water board will have no control or say over its finances, which proves yet again that those quangos are simply the creatures of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The resolution also provides for the authorisation of
"payment into the Consolidated Fund of any sums paid to the Secretary of State in consequence of any provision of the Act". Once again, the Treasury grabs the cash and the only cash that it can grab comes from consumers of water services in Scotland. Everyone must use those monopoly services on a daily basis.
In future, the benefit of any payments for water services will be snaffled by the Treasury and surpluses from water services will benefit not the consumer but the Government. That is neither just nor sensible, but it is now being built into the Bill. It fits in well with the pattern which the Government have introduced into Scotland. For example, billions of pounds of North sea oil revenue have bypassed Scotland and gone straight to the Treasury, and Scotland has had little benefit.
It adds insult to injury if the Treasury now wants any surpluses produced by water services to bypass Scotland. They will be swallowed up by the Treasury instead of being ploughed back into improvements for consumers who created that money in the first place. Water and sewerage services are essential, monopoly services. People
Column 654have no option but to use water services and therefore no option but to contribute to any surpluses which the Treasury would take to itself.
England and Wales received billions of pounds in the form of a green dowry but, apparently, that will not happen in Scotland. The Government would rather use Scottish public money to further their ideological objectives than to clean up Scottish water. National Audit Office figures show that when the Government privatised water services south of the border all the national loans fund debt incurred by the water industry, which totalled about £5,028 million, was written off.
In addition, with great munificence, the Government authorised an additional cash injection in English and Welsh water of £1,499 million in December 1989. Overall, the green dowry that the Government quickly gave for the privatisation of water services in England and Wales amounted to some £6,527 million. I notice that the Secretary of State has been quick to avoid answering the question whether there will be any such debt write-off in Scotland. In England and Wales, additional water privatisation costs of £131 million were incurred by the Department of the Environment. They included the costs of underwriting, customer share incentives and consultancy fees, and they were paid by the Government without a second thought. An additional £240 million was incurred in financing water privatisation, but it was excluded from the Department of the Environment's costs. It involved the flotation and privatisation costs of the Water Services Association and the water authorities, which came to £166 million, and
Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is it relevant to the ways and means resolution? He is talking about water privatisation in England. We are debating a narrow resolution. Surely the hon. Gentleman's speech should relate to Scotland.
Mr. Welsh : I welcome the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant), who represents an English constituency. This is the first time he has shown his face in the Chamber throughout the debate. He has voted against Scottish wishes and interests without having heard the debate, which is ludicrous. His presence enables me to make a point : hon. Members who, like him, have not received one vote or any mandate in Scotland will serve on the Committee and force through a measure against the wishes of the Scottish people. I welcome the hon. Gentleman if he wants merely to listen to the debate.
The fact that the Government paid the sums that I have described as a green dowry in England and Wales but are not considering the debt burden on the Scottish water boards is relevant to the resolution. I remind the hon. Gentleman of more, although smaller, amounts : £166 million was paid to the Water Services Association ; £10 million was spent on preparing legislation and establishing the new regulatory system in England and Wales ; and restructuring costs amounted to £64 million.
About £7,000 million of public money was used by the Government to sweeten water privatisation in England, but
Column 655what is happening in Scotland? Silence. Are we to have a similar debt write-off? Will all, some or none of the debt in Scotland to be written off? I remind the Minister that £700 million of Scottish taxpayers' money was used by the Government to sweeten privatisation in England. Similar amounts should be made available to write off the water boards' debts in Scotland. It would make a difference by helping service provision and freeing cash to improve water quality, which is essential.
To judge from the silence of Ministers, however, it appears that there will be no green dowry for the Scottish water boards and no capital debt write- off. I would that it were otherwise, and I should be happy to let the Minister intervene to tell me that it is otherwise. I have put the same question to the Secretary of State time after time but I met only silence. The Government were happy to hand out public money for private purposes in England, but the Secretary of State will not say whether they will give a similar deal for the publicly controlled Scottish water boards. Is it Government policy to use public money for private profit and private purposes only in England and Wales?
Greater powers and more centralisation to the Secretary of State are contained in the resolution, as well as much unfairness to those who will have to contribute to any surplus that is produced by the water boards because water is a monopoly service. Any surplus made by the boards should be used for service improvement--for improving the infrastructure, for investment and for lowering prices to Scottish water consumers. That is what I want. What customers in Scotland pay in, because they have no option, should be returned to them in the form of services or improved infrastructure. I do not see that in the resolution. I see greater centralisation and the Government taking even greater powers, instead of a fairer deal for Scottish water consumers and water services.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) : First, I must admit to having a deep suspicion of the Government and would like to enquire of them the purpose of paragraph (b), which does not mention water and sewerage authorities but says "any sums" and
"any provision of the Act".
To me, as I have a suspicious mind, that might read like a catch-all asset- stripping provision. The fact that it does not refer to water and sewerage means that any money realised from anything that is sold off can be put in to the Consolidated Fund and, in fact, returned to the Treasury.
If that is the case and paragraph (b) does not refer only to the water and sewerage authorities, as the Government see it--they do not believe in the sort of authorities that the Labour party and other parties would support, but in what they call minimalist authorities--there are so many assets to strip among everything that local authorities hold. Local authorities' buildings, which they have said will become surplus, could be sold off and the proceeds returned not to the local authority but to the Consolidated Fund, via this part of the resolution.
If the Government wish to put up for sale profit-making services, they could put that revenue into the Consolidated Fund. Even the houses held by housing authorities could be sold because the Government have a stated ambition to increase the number of private houses in Scotland. If
Column 656paragraph (b) does not refer only to water and sewerage, they could also force the sale of authorities' housing assets and give that money back to the Treasury.
Hon. Members may say that that is ridiculous and that the Government would not do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, will remember Hamilton college of education, which was sold cheap to form a private school. That is what the Conservatives want--they want the country to be run by the private sector, regardless of how much it costs the individual in additional charges. They are chasing an ideology that could lead to tremendous asset stripping.
We heard of the minimalist council of south Ayrshire and I know of the ambitions of the Conservative Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), the Minister of State, Department of Employment, for his authority. He wants a minimalist council that will sell off its assets. If they have only a few meetings a year to hand out contracts, they will not require buildings or be responsible for running any services and they can get rid of all the assets.
I warn the Government that, if that is the case, unless clause 23 merely pays lip service to devolution of power and to
decentralisation of delivery of service, it will require a fantastic input of assets. I know that the clause is written in such a way that the Secretary of State can decide what is and what is not devolution. It may mean that there would be a token gesture. If paragraph (b) can be interpreted as an asset-stripping provision--I hope that it would not be-- they will have nothing left to have their devolved services delivered from.
I should like the Minister to make it clear whether paragraph (b) refers only to water and sewerage authorities or whether it is a catch-all provision which would allow sums for any sale of any assets from any of the new local authorities to be returned to the Secretary of State and through him to the Consolidated Fund.
If it concerns only water and sewerage authorities, it is important to re- read the words of paragraph (a), which states that those authorities will pay the Secretary of State any
"such sums as he may direct".
I ask hon. Members to think of a parallel to what may be happening with the water and sewerage authorities, which was so eruditely described by other hon. Members. For example, the Post Office is controlled by very much the same sort of provision. The Treasury can instruct that any sums can be returned to it, as it desires. Although the Post Office is a profit-making organisation--I think that it donated £60 million to the Treasury last year--it has been instructed under the new financial controls to return £160 million to the Treasury next year. The result was a penny on the postage stamp rate--to pay for a direction by the Treasury to return moneys to the Treasury.
This clause appears to be similar--a clause whereby the Government could instruct that the water charges would be increased, not for the purpose of investment in improved water, nor for the purpose of investment in water infrastructure, nor for the purpose of better sewerage, cleansing and dealing with effluent from industry or the domestic user, but merely to give money back to the Consolidated Fund to aid the Treasury's attempt to gather in moneys to keep the deficit down.
One might say that it might not make that much money, but £160 million is all that the Government are demanding from the Post Office. If they think that it is worth putting
Column 657a penny on the postage stamp to obtain money for the Treasury, it would not be beyond the bounds of imagination for the Government to force up water charges by simply telling the water boards that they want more money to be returned to the Consolidated Fund and to the Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State said earlier that if people faced the prospect of doubled charges for their water to pay for investment in the infrastructure required in Scotland they would not be so happy with water charges. That is not the case. If people knew that the doubled charges would go to the democratically controlled local authority to improve water and sewerage services, they would be happy to pay a doubled charge.
Under the Bill, however, they could be forced to pay doubled charges merely for the purpose of returning money to the Scottish Office--money which would then, presumably, go into the Consolidated Fund or be taken as part of the income to the Scottish Office so that the direct grant from the Treasury for Scottish services would be reduced. The clause is laden with dangers for water consumers, because it can mean a burden of increased cost that is not reflected in the improvements that we know to be necessary in the water and sewerage infrastructure of Scotland.
I wish the Secretary of State to give us some assurances that he will not use the clause for that purpose. His silence will be taken as an admission that he is already thinking along those lines--that it will be a money cow which can be milked because when he has the boards they can be made to pay him sums of money and the cost will then be passed on the consumers with no real benefit to them. We need an explanation of what seems to be a tiny piece of the legislation but is laden with dangers for the consumer and for democracy in Scotland.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : There is always a bit of mystery surrounding Ways and Means resolutions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) has extended the mystery surrounding this one by giving us his interpretation of paragraph (b), which takes us beyond the duty being imposed concerning the application of funds from water and sewerage authorities. He has read that paragraph by itself and he may be right to do so. He may well be right in suggesting that it creates scope for the application of funds from a range of different functions and services provided by local authorities and gives the Secretary of State even more power to direct local authorities to dispose of assets or to make profits and to syphon off money by those means into the Treasury.
It appears that the main purpose of the resolution is to make provision for the Secretary of State to direct the new water and sewerage authorities to pay to him such sums as he may direct, being sums not required by them for the exercise of their functions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said earlier, the new water and sewerage authorities will be straightforward creatures of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Clause 64 tells us that the water and sewerage authorities will be
Column 658composed of between seven and 11 persons who appear to the Secretary of State to have knowledge or experience relevant to the discharge of that authority.
One might like to think that that would mean that a load of plumbers would be nominated by the Secretary of State to be members of the water and sewerage authority. However, let us consider one example of a body appointed by the secretary of State for Scotland, which is chaired by someone whom the Government regard as having the requisite knowledge and experience to discharge that function. The Historic Buildings Council for Scotland is chaired by no less a person than the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), who is well known for his interest in water and things liquid in Scotland.
I fear that such authorities will not be accountable to people in Scotland; they will not be primarily interested in providing a quality service to people in Scotland. They will be there, like every other quango nominated by the Scottish Office nowadays, to exercise the political will of the Scottish Office.
That development raises one or two alarming prospects. Under the resolution, the Secretary of State will have the power to direct the bodies that he has nominated to apply their moneys in certain ways. That could, as already suggested, be a softening-up exercise leading in the direction of the privatisation of water and sewerage services.
In that case, if would be perfectly consistent with that ethos for the Secretary of State to direct the nominated bodies to start making a profit, rather than just breaking even, providing a service and balancing the books, and in doing so, providing a quality service to water consumers all over Scotland. He could direct them to start making a profit so that he could take the money out of their trading account and apply it back to the Treasury--another form of indirect taxation on people in Scotland. The Secretary of State should come clean about that and tell us whether that is what he had in mind when he tabled the resolution.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether this is a matter for you. I have been carefully studying the monitors which some of us, even with our failing eyesight, can read in the Chamber. I noticed that when my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) was speaking, his name was written in large letters. I have been watching carefully for the name of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and I cannot read it. It is impossible to read because it is in very small letters. Fortunately, I am in the Chamber so I know who is speaking, but those who may not be able to read the monitors outside because of the small letters may not know that my hon. Friend is speaking. Does the matter fall within your remit, Mr. Deputy Speaker ?
Column 659Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) a long and boring explanation of my long and boring name. The length of my name is the reason why it appears in such small print on the monitors. I must not be diverted from the narrow terms of the resolution.
I have expressed my concern that the Secretary of State may take advantage of the terms of the resolution to direct water and sewerage authorities to seek to make a profit so that he can use them as a vehicle for taxation. I am all the more worried when I look at clause 100, which provides for water metering. Water metering has been experienced in the Isle of Wight and in parts of England. Many water consumers have found themselves in terrible difficulties because of spiralling charges for water and sewerage. it may not be just a break-even exercise. First, the Secretary of State may direct the authorities to make a profit so that they can pay money into the Treasury, which is a matter of great concern.
The second point that worries me, almost as much as the first, is that, as well as trading profits, the water and sewerage authorities will have capital assets in abundance in Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart said, assets build up over many years as a result of the enterprise, public concern and investment of local authorities. My hon. Friend referred to Loch Katrine. One could list a whole range of lochs and reservoirs and the land surrounding them all over Scotland.
We must consider not only the land surrounding those lochs and reservoirs, but the sporting and recreational rights that go with them. In my constituency, Lothian regional council water and drainage department has a number of reservoirs and lochs for which there are quite good fishing rights and on which people enjoy sailing. It is straightforward for any citizen to pay a reasonable charge for a day's fishing on those reservoirs or to go sailing on them, which makes all kinds of sense as part of the public service and the public assets to which the public have access.
I fear that Ministers may say, "Ah, those lochs and reservoirs have a capital value. We could direct our new nominees on the quangos"--in this case the new East of Scotland water authorities--"to sell off the public assets and to reduce public access to fishing on those lochs and reservoirs." Already, I have had experience of what happens when certain types of developers and private operators become involved in land holdings in different parts of my constituency.
Traditionally, on the boundary of my constituency, people have walked up to the highest point in the Lammermuir hills on open moorland, not bothering anybody. A couple of years ago, somebody from Hampshire I think bought the estate and has instructed the estate staff to begin turning people off the land. I fear that that will also happen on and around the lochs and reservoirs which are currently operated by our local authorities, where people have access to fish, sail or do anything that they want in and around those beautiful areas in the hills and uplands of Scotland.
We can see the fences going up, the gates being closed with signs saying, "keep out, private property", the higher charges for access and sporting rights in those areas and people being denied the right of access to the hills and uplands of Scotland. That would be a scandal, but it would be possible under the terms of the Ways and Means resolution. Clause 95 makes it clear enough :
Column 660"a new water and sewerage authority may dispose of land held by them in any manner, to whomsoever and for whatever purpose they wish.
Except with the consent of the Secretary of State, a new water and sewerage authority shall not dispose of land under subsection (1) above for a consideration of less than the best that could reasonably be expected to be obtained on the open market."
The Secretary of State will direct the authority to go for as much as it can whenever it sells assets. It is all about privatisation and benefits to the highest bidder.
Mr. Maxton : If the local authority wished to purchase some land to put it into a country park or for the enjoyment of the people who live in that area, it would have great difficulty in finding the price to pay for land. However, if a private builder wished to build bungalows on the site of Loch Katrine, presumably because he would be able to pay the market price, he would be able to do it.
Mr. Home Robertson : That would be the ultimate irony--public assets in the hills created as a direct result of the foresight, planning and investment of local authorities and their ratepayers, poll tax payers and council tax payers over the years, being taken out of the local authority sector and handed to central Government quangos as laid out in the Bill and then sold to the highest bidder. Local authorities may well find themselves trying to buy back their own property to protect the rights of their citizens to have access to the hills and to go fishing on their lochs and reservoirs. This is far from a technical resolution. What is being provided for is part and parcel of the thrust of the legislation, and it stinks to high heaven. That is why it is right for us to debate it and to vote against it.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : This must be an important debate. At 12.20 am, it has attracted more Conservative Members representing English constituencies than any other stage of the Bill. I am delighted to see them in the Chamber and I look forward to the informed contributions that they are likely to make to a debate which I hope will be prolonged because we are dealing with issues that are central to the people of Scotland. I should not want Parliament to skate over the motion without giving it due consideration. As a number of Members are present from English constituencies who do not have wide experience of Scottish local government issues, especially of the way in which water and sewerage services are delivered in Scotland, it may be as well to help them by explaining the process to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) does not have much knowledge of these matters either, so for his benefit and that of Tory Members perhaps I should explain that water and sewerage services are delivered by elected local authorities and that the Scottish people want them to continue to be so.
When the Government put out for consultation the proposal that they should take water and sewerage services from local authorities and give them to quangos, area water boards or privatise them, they received a massive response. I understand that no fewer than 4,733 submissions were received from individuals and organisations in Scotland.
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale) : My hon. Friend is offering an excellent explanation to English Members. He said that the Scottish people want water to continue to be provided by local water authorities, but it is not good
Column 661enough to say that the Scottish people want it. He should explain what percentage of the Scottish people want it, because opinion polls showed that more than 90 per cent. of Scottish people opposed the Government's proposals.
Mr. McAllion : I was about to point out to Conservative Members the seriousness of supporting a proposal that is overwhelmingly opposed by the people of Scotland, including Conservative supporters who have no time whatsoever for the changes that are being pushed through the House.
Of those 4,733 submissions, 4,057 came from private individuals and only 676 from organisations. Of all those responses, only five supported the change from local authorities to privatised water boards, of which four were from companies interested in taking over water and sewerage services in Scotland. Another submission came from the economic affairs committee of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association. That can hardly be said to have democratic support in Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) is right. The most recent opinion poll showed that 95 per cent. of the Scottish people oppose the Bill's proposals for water and sewerage services. Indeed, so unpopular is the Bill making the Conservative party in Scotland that it is beginning to become less popular among Scottish people than Michael and Kevin Kelly are among Celtic supporters.
Under paragraph (a) of the Ways and Means motion, the Secretary of State will be given the power
"to direct a water and sewerage authority to pay him such sums as he may direct, being sums not required by them for the exercise of their functions".
I should be interested to hear from the Minister what sums will accrue to the new water and sewerage authorities which they do not require for the exercise of their functions.
The new water authorities are to be area water boards and public boards appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland. It will be their function to deliver water and sewerage services. However, they will not carry out those functions themselves. In the main, they will appoint private sector agents to deliver the services. Those agents will design, build and operate the water treatment plants that are necessary to provide those services.
As I understand it, there will be a contract between the area water board and the private sector agent which will pay the private sector agents for carrying out the work on behalf of the area board. The cost of that contract will be met by the levy of a water rate that will be paid by the consumers of water and sewerage services in Scotland.
The consumers--the Scottish people--will be asked to pay for a service delivered to them by private sector organisations over which they have absolutely no democratic control. They will not control the appointment of the private sector bodies that will deliver the services.
Column 662Similarly, they will not control the appointments to the water boards that will appoint the private sector companies to deliver the services.
It is clear that paragraph (a) is deeply undemocratic in the way in which it delivers water and sewerage services in Scotland. Those who vote for the motion had better keep that in mind.
The water rate that will be levied to pay for the contracts and to pay for the services will not be collected by the private sector agents. It will not even be collected by the area water boards. The rate will be collected by the new single-tier councils. I assume that the area boards will authorise the councils to collect only as much money as is required to pay for the contracts that have been agreed with the private sector agents.
I do not assume that the area boards will be allowed to instruct the single -tier councils to collect more than is required to pay for the water and sewerage services. If they could be instructed to collect more, the area boards could create a surplus for themselves by charging people too much for those services. That would be a form of taxation.
If the Secretary of State is saying that, if he came across an area board collecting more than the sum required to pay for the services being delivered, he would instruct the area board to return that surplus to the consumers who had paid for the services, that would be one thing, but that is not what the Secretary of State is saying in paragraph (a). He is saying that, if he comes across an area board that is charging too much for the services that it is delivering, he will simply require that board to return the surplus money to him. As I understand it, that money will go into the Consolidated Fund. In other words, according to the motion, the Secretary of State has the opportunity to impose a further form of taxation on the Scottish people by allowing his appointees on area boards to charge more than they need for the services and to hand the surplus to the Secretary of State for his own purposes.
The other possibility is that the contracts agreed between the area boards and their private sector agents might be too generous. That might allow the private sector agents to make too generous profits from the operation of the contract by charging too much for the services provided. If the Secretary of State came across private sector agents making too much profit from the contracts agreed with the area boards, I would expect him in all decency and morality to instruct the area boards and private sector agents to return the surplus to the people who are paying the water rate. Of course, that is not what he says. He says that he wants any surplus for himself. He wants it to go back into the Consolidated Fund--yet another form of taxation.
More likely, the Secretary of State will ignore the fact that private sector companies and area boards are ripping off water consumers in Scotland and will let them get on with it. The only people who support the Tory party in Scotland are the type of people who would rip off the Scottish people and charge them too much for services.
Another problem arises. Ever since the poll tax was introduced in Scotland, a tradition of non-payment has arisen. Even the council tax, which has met much less resistance in Scotland than the poll tax did, still suffers from the problem that people are getting out of the habit of paying their bills. There is resistance to paying bills. What will happen when an area board employs a private sector deliverer to provide water services in its area, when
Column 663there is a levy to pay for that service, when the single-tier local council is collecting that water rate, when there is non-payment and a consequent shortfall in the money going to that responsible area board and it does not receive the money to pay to the private sector agent to deliver services? Is that why we have paragraph (b)? It states :
"to authorise the payment into the Consolidated Fund of any sums paid to the Secretary of State, otherwise than in repayment of any loans made by him, in consequence of any provision of the Act ; and" Is the purpose of the Consolidated Fund to make up the shortfall to the area boards so that they can pay the private sector agents, as agreed in their contracts ? If that is the case, it is a convoluted and unnecessary way of organising the delivery of water and sewerage services in Scotland. Surely it would be much easier to let local authorities carry on delivering those services in the efficient and economical way that they have done throughout the existence of regional councils since 1975.
Nobody has complained that water and sewerage services were not good enough, that they were not being delivered properly, or that they cost too much--quite the opposite. People in Scotland understand that water and sewerage costs in our country are far cheaper than they are in England and Wales because they have not been privatised. If they were privatised, the immediate effect would be to push up the cost of water and sewerage services.
Mr. Home Robertson : I am following my hon. Friend's argument very carefully, but I am rather worried. He has said that some people have difficulty paying their bills. He says that the motion could bring about a situation in which we could have artificially high charges for water. Does my hon. Friend foresee the possibility that the government might introduce consequential legislation which would provide for the cutting of domestic water supplies in Scotland, which would be a horrifying prospect ?
Mr. McAllion : My hon. Friend raises an important issue which, at least to my knowledge, has not been touched upon this evening. There have been repeated statements by the Secretary of State for Scotland that he does not intend to change the law in Scotland on the illegality of disconnecting domestic users from water and sewerage supplies. I am sure that he does not propose to do that.
However, if the situation that I am describing arises in Scotland and if the cost of water and sewerage services is so high that some consumers cannot afford to pay and, as a result, do not pay, and the single-tier authority collecting the rates cannot collect the rates from those individuals and a shortfall then accrues to the water board and it cannot pay for the contract that it has taken out with the private sector, someone has to pay. Either the general taxpayer will pay out of the Consolidated Fund, as outlined in the motion, or the Secretary of State will change the law in Scotland and allow the disconnection of domestic consumers from the water and sewerage supply, as is allowed in England and Wales.
The Government continually tell us that this is a unitary Parliament which presides over a unitary state and that what happens in one part of the country happens in any other part of the country. They do not like to carry that argument too far when it comes to water disconnections because it is too embarrassing for them. However, it will