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Column 596The House will know about a resolution adopted by the general assembly of the World Conservation Union which was held in Buenos Aires last month. The resolution called for the early passage into relevant law of the protocol, and that is what we seek to do today. The Bill will do the very things that the general assembly urges us to do.
We hope that the Bill will be successful, and thus enable us to ratify the protocol by the end of the year. It would be a great misfortune if it fell. It would set back our ratification timetable to 1996 or thereabouts, it would draw adverse criticism from other signatories, and it would be a very bad signal. I am pleased that there has been universal support in the Chamber for what we are about.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and others have referred to the two elements of Antarctic work in which the United Kingdom is especially active : Antarctic politics, in which we have consistently taken a leading role, and Antarctic science, in which we maintain a pre-eminent position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester asked me to give some reassurance about our continuing commitment to that scientific work. I can give that commitment. The same question was asked by the hon. Members for Gateshead, East and for Islington, North. The only positive statement in the Antarctic treaty is that on the need for freedom for scientific investigation and co- operation between states to achieve that end. Article II of the protocol flags up the crucial position of science in its designation of Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. That embodies environmental protection and science as the critical currencies of Antarctica. The Government's policy has consistently been that the United Kingdom's physical presence in the British Antarctic Territory should primarily be provided by first-class science programmes. We have a long tradition of scientific endeavour in Antarctica. Our science presence in Antarctica, which is, I think, the envy of much of the international scientific community, is provided by the British Antarctic Survey, one of the research institutes of the Natural Environment Research Council.
We must ask why we are committed to such high-profile scientific research in the region. The predominant thrust of the British Antarctic Survey is to concentrate research efforts on those elements of science that can be carried out only in the Antarctic and that provide vital information on global processes. The near-pristine conditions of Antarctica provide a yardstick against which to monitor a number of key global parameters.
That issue has been mentioned by other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Poole (Mr. Ward). The main work includes atmospheric pollution, ozone depletion, climatic change and sea level rises. Actions in one part of the world affect us all throughout the world. Taken together, our actions produce a cumulative global effect.
Antarctica provides the ideal template for scientific investigations into processes that affect us all ; we should not underestimate that effect, even though it may be long-term. The influence of Antarctica is considerable. It acts as the major heat sink of the planet. Its surrounding air masses and oceans determine much of what happens in the southern hemisphere, the weather patterns, fisheries, land productivity and agriculture. Its ice cap, which is 14
Column 597million sq km in extent and, on average, 2.2 km thick, contains about 90 per cent. of the world's ice and 70 per cent. of its fresh water.
Perhaps one of the most significant scientific discoveries this century was that made in 1985 by British Antarctic Survey atmospheric scientists working at the Halley research station, when they detected the so-called ozone hole over Antarctica. That has led to considerable concern and international conventions that govern the use of propellants for aerosols, and refrigerants for fridges and freezers.
I shall seek to answer the specific questions asked by hon. Members, but I first want to mention the implementation of the protocol. I think that we can all be agreed that, if the Antarctic is to retain its critical importance as a base from which science can be conducted, it must be retained in its relatively pristine condition. There are two ways of doing that, and they are harmonious one with the other. First, knowing that Antarctica, remote as it is from centres of industry and population, is affected by worldwide activities, we must, through other relevant international agreements, reduce atmospheric and sea-borne pollution. That means that we must support instruments such as the Montreal protocol, the climate change convention and the Basel convention.
Secondly, we must ensure that any localised impact on Antarctica is minimised, the reason being that we must not sully the very environment that we wish to study. In October 1991, when the protocol was adopted, the Antarctic treaty parties, appreciating that formal entry into force would clearly take some time, agreed that they would do their best to comply informally with the provisions of the protocol ahead of its entry into force.
That has been done by those within the United Kingdom. The main UK operators in Antarctica have implemented the practicalities of the protocol with considerable alacrity. Both the British Antarctic Survey and the Royal Navy are complying fully, albeit informally, with all elements of the protocol. The BAS rapidly introduced an action programme to implement the protocol, and is now one of the leaders in the field.
I fear that, because of the pressures of time and my desire that the right hon. Member for Salford, East should have an opportunity of moving his Bill, I do not have the opportunity to go into all the informal steps that we have taken.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and others raised the question of abandoned stations within Antarctica. I should like to deal with that matter specifically. We must ask ourselves what is to be done with the numerous abandoned UK stations up and down the Antarctic peninsula. Annex III to the protocol requires that former work places in Antarctica be cleaned up or removed unless to do so would have more impact on the environment than leaving them in situ. As I mentioned before, our permanent presence in Antarctica goes back a long time. Since 1943, some 20 stations have outgrown their useful life, scientifically or logistically, or have simply been destroyed by the climatic conditions that exist there. We are, for example, now occupying the fifth station to be built at Halley bay. The
Column 598four predecessors to the current station, which was finished only in 1992, have in turn been crushed by the pressure of the Brunt ice shelf, and have been abandoned.
We have conducted a comprehensive survey of all the accessible UK abandoned stations. Our options are to clean them up, remove the structures, convert them into some form of emergency refuge or designate them formally as historic sites and monuments under the environmental protocol. Any premature or over-zealous clean-up of the huts would, I suspect, be criticised in years to come, there being a great deal of legitimate historical interest in the Antarctic. Therefore, we must ensure that any assessment of the future of those stations is done with considerable sensitivity. I can assure the House that, when determining their future, we will reflect carefully, taking account of the considerations, for example, that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East.
Reference has been made, on both sides of the House, to the environmental impact assessments. The environmental impact assessment is one element of the protocol on which the BAS moved ahead some time ago. As hon. Members will know, it is a well-recognised procedure in modern developmental planning. The protocol requires that activities in Antarctica, whether governmental or non-governmental, touristic or scientific in nature, undergo assessment for environmental impact before they proceed. Three levels of assessment are set out in the protocol. The detail of assessment that has to be carried out depends on the predicted impact of the activity in question.
Draft guidelines have been prepared by the Government to deal with the EIAs in Antarctica and under the Bill, and the question how those assessments will be carried out in future would be dealt with as conditions in any permit for a British expedition or station in Antarctica.
That takes me to the question of permits. Broadly speaking, the permit regime has been welcomed on both sides of the House. That regime will be the basic means of implementing the environmental protection measures required by the protocol.
The Bill sets out a number of permit provisions. It might be useful if I commented on them--briefly, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has already explained their impact very clearly. Clauses 3, 4 and 5 deal respectively with British expeditions to Antarctica, British stations in Antarctica and British ships or aircraft going to Antarctica.
In each case, a permit will be needed from the Secretary of State, who in most cases--I think, in all cases--will be my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Such a permit will have to be issued before any of the relevant activities can proceed ; to act otherwise would be to commit an offence under the Bill.
Clause 13 provides that the Secretary of State may attach conditions to a permit. We are anxious not to set up an overly cumbersome bureaucracy, requiring expeditions that intend to set up or extend stations and, possibly, to employ both aircraft and ships to obtain several permits covering every facet of their work. I hope that, in such circumstances-- which are likely to arise in the complex logistic and scientific operations of the BAS--a single overriding, over-arching permit covering all elements of clauses 3, 4 and 5 will suffice.
A specific permit will be required for scientific research into Antarctic minerals. We need to strike a proper balance between ensuring that the mineral resources ban created by
Column 599article 7 of the protocol is made effective, and not constraining the valuable scientific research into earth sciences in Antarctica--geology and geophysics.
Mr. Corbyn : I understand what the Minister is saying about the permits, but I am concerned about two matters. First, what will be the procedure if the Foreign Secretary--presumably--refuses a permit to an organisation that may well be doing something that would embarrass people who are contravening the treaty ? In the past, Greenpeace has embarrassed the United States and France by exposing their activities in rubbish disposal. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to grant recognised non- governmental organisation status to certain organisations ? That has been done elsewhere.
Secondly, the permits do not cover ships or aircraft travelling through the Antarctic airspace or seas whose destination is not in Antarctica. I envisage a problem : tourist operators could use that loophole to undertake operations there without stopping or landing. What would happen in the case of an emergency such as the plane crash that killed New Zealand tourists ?
Mr. Hogg : I do not wish to criticise the hon. Gentleman, but those are essentially Committee points ; they are points of some substance. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will interest himself in the Committee stage. I shall be happy to consider any proposals that he may advance then, and in the meantime I shall reflect on whether we could or should do anything to meet his concerns.
This is, in a sense, only a partial answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, but legal difficulties are involved in distinguishing between academic geological science and commercial mineral exploration. As has often been said, the difference lies more in the intent of those carrying out the work than in the operation itself. We must be able to ensure that any geophysical or geological work is being carried out for bona fide scientific purposes and scientific gain.
A number of hon. Members have raised the question of wildlife. The taking of wildlife and entry into protected areas will require specific permits.
As to whaling, the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will prevent United Kingdom nationals from killing or disturbing whales or seals in Antarctica. The international regulation of whales and whaling is the responsibility of the International Whaling Commission, not the Antarctic treaty parties ; but, to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East, the IWC is today negotiating a Southern ocean whale sanctuary. The United Kingdom supports that concept, which would provide total protection for all of the great whales in the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic.
Fishing was mentioned by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). The hon. Gentleman informed me that he had to go to his constituency, and we all understand the reasons that took him away from this place.
Mr. Corbyn : His constituency is nearly in the Arctic.
Mr. Hogg : The hon. Member is right.
To reply to the question asked by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, fish and fishing are dealt with by the convention on the conservation of antarctic marine living resources 1980, not by the protocol, and we are an active
Column 600party to that convention. Commercial fisheries in Antarctica are regulated by open or closed seasons and also restrictions on allowable catches. We will continue to press for regulations to be imposed on fisheries to be strengthened to ensure proper compliance and conservation.
Reference has been made to the fact that there are powers to delegate the Secretary of State's powers to others--for example, the administrator of the British Antarctic Territory or the director of the British Antarctic Survey. The power to delegate is discretionary, but, to answer an argument by the hon. Member for Islington, North, to forestall potential accusations that any delegated permitting authority could be construed as acting as judge and jury, I suspect that it will be prudent not to delegate to BAS officials the power to grant permits for those activities which might significantly damage or destroy habitats or plant communities. Transparency is important : the point has been well made in the House.
Tourism has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. There has been a substantial increase in the volume of tourism to Antarctica. I am glad that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland wants to pay a visit, and I would also like to do so. The hon. Member for Islington, North was less certain whether he wanted to be a tourist.
Mr. Hogg : He was certain : I am so sorry.
Mr. Corbyn : I was going there.
Mr. Hogg : He could not go. I remember now : he wanted to oppose the action in the Gulf. He did not get much sympathy from the House, but I am sorry that it cost him his journey. Perhaps I had better stop this private chat with the hon. Gentleman.
In any event, we are all agreed that tourism is increasing, and is likely to continue to do so. It is important to emphasise that that is subject to the controls under the protocol and under the Bill. It has as much bearing on tourist expeditions to Antarctica as on their scientific counterparts and, although there has been reference to a mandatory annex specifically tailored to tourism, that has aroused considerable hostility.
We feel that we might be able to address any of the further problems better by a series of codes of guidance and by self-regulation, although we also think that we could introduce other changes--for example, the introduction of on-board observer schemes. There was interesting discussion about jurisdiction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to clause 21, and there has been reference to clause 24. The object of those provisions is to ensure that there is a criminal jurisdiction in respect of acts that might take place in areas that are not claimed territory.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made an ingenious point, as I would expect of him. He asked which jurisdiction would apply in the event of there being a difference between Scottish law and the law of England and Wales. The answer is that the relevant law is that of the country in which the trial takes place--that of Scotland or of England and Wales, as might be material.
I imposed on myself the self-denying ordinance that I would sit down at 12.55 pm in order to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Havant to raise the matters that I know he has in mind, which are of considerable
Column 601importance. In order to set a good example to other hon. Members, I intend to comply with my self-denying ordinance. In doing so, I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant) : I begin by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for his characteristic courtesy in curtailing his speech so as to give me the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have enjoyed listening to several contributions and I hope to make a modest contribution of my own. I feel slightly embarrassed, however, that in doing so I have shortened the authoritative comments of the Minister.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on introducing the Bill. Clearly, all hon. Members agree that it is important that Britain moves as rapidly as possible to implement the 1991 protocol to the Antarctic treaty. The significance of the Antarctic to British research and British history cannot be underestimated. We should remember that it was Captain Cook who discovered the Antarctic and we have produced some very distinguished contributors to its history, such as Scott and Shackleton. Most recently, Mr. Joe Farman, a British scientist, discovered the hole in the ozone layer from one of our research stations in British Antarctic territory.
That is a revealing episode because it reveals the difference between British and American science and highlights some of the traditional strengths of British science. The Americans had sophisticated systems in place to monitor the size of the ozone layer. Their systems were computerised ; ours were not. The Americans had written into their computer programmes an error elimination element which meant that, if the readings started diverging too much, they were discounted. As the hole in the ozone layer was growing so rapidly, the automatic correction procedures in the American computerised monitoring system eliminated the readings showing that the ozone hole was growing, so the hole was not caught by the American researchers. It was the British researcher, using tried and tested techniques and inspecting his data manually, who discovered the hole, rather than the much more expensive, highly computerised American systems. That reminds us of one of the long-term strengths of British scientific inquiry.
I was sorry to discover that the Faraday and Signy bases, at one of which the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer was made, will be unmanned in future because it would cost £5 million to implement health and safety regulations. I hope that it is not a case of absurd over-regulation standing in the way of legitimate scientific inquiry. Of course, we need the highest environmental standards in Antarctica, but, as far as I know, there has never been a serious physical danger or threat--
Ms Quin : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's interest in the subject, is it in order for an hon. Member to intervene who was not present to hear the opening speech?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Yes, it is in order. If it were not, the hon. Gentleman would not have been allowed to intervene.
Mr. Willetts : May I point out that I have been in the Chamber to hear the bulk of the debate and, indeed, have enjoyed listening to several contributions from hon. Members of all parties.
I was saying that it is a great pity if the burden of health and safety regulations has led to the closure of the Faraday and Signy sites or, at least, to the change from their being manned to being unmanned stations.
I hope that the regulations that will be imposed are rational ones that can be justified by normal cost-benefit analysis.
Several hon. Members have referred to the threats to the environment of the Antarctic which the Bill is designed to address. We have heard much about tourism. Over the past year, there have been some extraordinary examples in the British press of attempts by tour operators to have their cake and eat it. I particularly enjoyed a striking article in The Guardian on 19 June 1993, which was a classic example of politically correct advertising for tourism. The article largely comprised anxieties about the effects of tourism on the Antarctic environment and ended with a paragraph giving details of all the cruises, tour operators, addresses, prices and telephone numbers. That was certainly an example of an attempt to look both ways. I welcome the regulations that will be imposed by the Bill to try to limit the environmental damage that tourism can do. It is not only tourists who can damage the environment ; scientists can also damage the environment. The 4,000 scientists who go to the Antarctic every year can do enormous damage to the environment. I hope that they will keep a beady eye on what constitutes scientific inquiry. As science is given such extraordinary free rein in Antarctica, there are obvious temptations for any attempt to visit Antarctica for whatever purpose to be dressed up as science. The borderline between tourism and scientific activity is by no means obvious. Indeed, one can well imagine in the future the final irony of tourism being marketed on the basis that people can go to Antarctica to inspect the damage done to the environment by previous tourist visits. I hope that we will ensure that the scientific activity that will be rightly permitted under the Bill will be genuine and properly regulated and monitored.
My final comments on the Bill relate to the innovations in the legal framework with which Antarctica is to be protected. Antarctica is an extraordinary place not only in environmental terms but in terms of the law of international relations. It is not clear who owns it. Most of the progress in establishing a legal framework for Antarctica has been made by different countries which accept, as a precondition for reaching any agreement, that their conflicting claims for sovereignty must be set aside for the purposes of reaching international agreements. As a free marketeer, I was struck by the fact that in the Bill we are trying to protect an environment without the normal prerogatives of property rights and of people trying to protect the purity of their property. That is how the environment can normally be best protected and looked after.
I welcome the flexibility provided under article 9 of the protocol, which will enable future changes to the environmental regime for Antarctica to be introduced more speedily and easily than has been possible in the past. It would be a great pity if, in the future, we needed to reach wide-ranging international agreement before any serious improvements in the protection of the Antarctic environment was possible. Indeed, as more and more
Column 603countries have an interest in Antarctica, it is important that we do not become bogged down in ever more cumbersome international negotiations before any serious protection can be agreed. I think therefore that article 9 of the protocol, which will introduce further improvements to the environmental regime for British Antarctica, is of great importance and I welcome the measure. Another innovative aspect of the measure is the extension of British criminal law outside the United Kingdom. This is a fascinating example of an attempt to ensure that people on the other side of the world find that they cannot escape the long arm of British justice. I commend my right hon. Friend for introducing a Bill which involves such an innovative attempt to ensure proper legal protection for the Antarctic environment.
I conclude by giving the Bill a warm welcome and by congratulating my right hon. Friend on his initiative in ensuring that Britain--which has a long history of ratifying Antarctic treaties promptly and fully--can maintain that tradition by moving to ratify the latest environmental protocol.
Mr. Jopling : With the leave of the House, I will say a few words on this morning's full and fascinating debate. I am grateful to every single one of my colleagues who have spoken for their flattering remarks, both about my so-called wisdom in picking the Bill and about the quality of the Bill itself. I very much appreciate them. As I began by saying, the debate has demonstrated that, however far away Antarctica is, it has a great fascination for the House. However inhospitable and unattractive it may be physically, it is extraordinary how many colleagues from all parties have expressed a desire to go there.
I refer to three issues that have been raised in the debate. First, the hon. Members for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) referred to the control of fisheries.
Examination of the powers that are contained in the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources took me back forcefully to my previous incarnation as a Fisheries Minister, and as president of the Council of Fishery Ministers in Brussels. I remember talking about total allowable catches, prohibitions on
Column 604designated species, close seasons and grounds, net mesh regulations and data reporting schemes. I know that they have been effective within the European Union over the years and I was pleased that the CCAMLR has jurisdiction over commercial fishing in all the southern nations, including places such as South Georgia and South Sandwich, as well as the area south of 60 deg. which is covered by the Bill. I am pleased that the regime has already proved to be effective. I understand that, during the season, one Chilean fishing vessel has been fined and a Russian vessel is in the process of being prosecuted. That shows that the convention has some teeth. Secondly, I was struck by the number of hon. Members who referred to the problem of having too many tourists. They included my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Ward), for Winchester (Mr. Malone) and for Havant (Mr. Willetts). My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), whom I glad to see in his place, intervened to talk about the damage that tourists can do. He and I have an interest in the Lake District, which is in my constituency, and we know very well the damage that tourists can do to the very things that they go to look at. It is much the same with regard to Antarctica and it is essential that tourism is properly controlled so that tourists do not again destroy what they are meant to look at. Finally, the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester expressed the desire that clause 35, which deals with implementation, would be dealt with quickly when the Bill gets on the statute book. I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has been good enough to come to the House and respond to the debate in such an authoritative way. I hope that the Government will implement the Bill as soon as possible after it goes on to the statute book.
I could say a great deal more, but my old friend the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) is bursting to make his speech about water disconnections. So I shall not say any more about my Bill except that I am grateful for everything that has been said and I hope that it will be given an unopposed Second Reading.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
Order for Second Reading read.
Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I begin by thanking the sponsors of my Bill, which has all-party support. I also thank the many outside organisations which support it, including the National Consumer Council, the British Medical Association, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Save the Children and Age Concern. That is a substantial list of organisations which support the principle behind the Bill.
The Bill seeks to ban the disconnection of water supplies to occupied residential homes for reason of non-payment of charges. The Bill relates to England and Wales only because the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different. There is no power to disconnect water in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government have not taken the opportunity in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill to give the new Scottish water authorities such power.
My Bill will allow water companies to continue to disconnect business and empty premises. It will leave them free to use all the methods of debt collection that non-utility companies use to collect their debts. The Bill also seeks to ensure that pre-payment devices are installed only with the customer's consent.
I shall deal first with the need to ban domestic disconnections for non- payment of charges. The practice of water disconnection is inhuman and unacceptable in a civilised society. I believe that if disconnections continue, they will contribute to an increase in hygiene-related diseases such as dysentery. I always thought that we had banished such diseases from Britain for good.
The average bill across all 10 water and sewerage companies rose by 50 per cent. between April 1989 and April 1993. Inflation rose by 23 per cent. over the same period. So on average water bills have risen by significantly more than double the rate of inflation since privatisation. Unfortunately, in the five years since privatisation disconnections have also risen. On average, the rate of disconnections has tripled. In 1991-92 the number of disconnections reached more than 21,000. Last year there was a slight reduction, but figures were still unacceptably high : 18,636 households were disconnected. Everyone accepts that water bills will continue to rise, so the number of disconnections would also rise in the future. I have been disappointed with the response to the Bill from the Ofwat customer committees. Nevertheless, the chairman of Ofwat's eastern customer service committee, who is not a supporter of the Bill, makes the point that his committee is concerned about "the rising level of disconnection which we may expect following the issue of new water bills in the months of March and April 1994. "
That quotation is from a letter to the chairman of the National Consumer Council on 8 February.
Even the Bill's opponents admit that there is a strong likelihood that the pressure of rising bills will increase disconnections. Faced with tax increases and the fuel tax that will come into effect in the autumn, it would be difficult to contradict that view. The recent fall in the number of disconnections was achieved only by a huge
Column 606effort and a campaign by the organisations representing vulnerable groups. By using media coverage, they shamed water companies into reducing the number of disconnections. My worry is that we cannot rely on such public pressure indefinitely. If the spotlight leaves the water companies, they may return to what they see as an easy option for debt recovery.
The water companies say that they disconnect only the "won't payers"--those who can afford to pay, but refuse to do so. I shall bring to the attention of the House some recent examples of people I know who have been disconnected : in Southampton a lady with seven children, one aged three who suffers from a heart condition ; a family of five, in which the mother suffers from a medical condition which requires a constant supply of water and whose neighbours provided that water via a hose pipe ; and a severely disabled elderly lady, whose neighbours brought her water in a variety of containers. In south Staffordshire, a single parent on unemployment benefit was threatened with disconnection for arrears of £60.73. When the local citizens advice bureau contacted the water company to say that there was a child in the house, the company said, "So what?--We'll still disconnect." A young mother with three children, aged two, five and eight, handed over £50--all her family credit for a week--when the company turned up to cut her water off. The water company got its money, but the family had nothing left for food for the following week. In mid-Kent, the water company refused to allow a family with two children under five and a baby on the way to repay £5 a week under an instalment plan and demanded the payment of more than £400 in full.
I do not call those people "won't payers", but "can't payers". Consumer and health groups are so concerned about the increase in disconnections and the way in which they indiscriminately affect both the weak and the strong that in growing numbers they are calling for a ban. The public health of the nation is at risk.
The most fundamental point is that water is not like any other commodity. It is essential and there is no substitute. If the electricity is cut off, people can use a Calor gas heater ; if the gas supply is cut off, they can cook on a primus stove for a few days. It would be a hardship--there is no doubt about it--but it would be just about possible to find a substitute which would not necessarily endanger their health or anything else. If water supplies are cut off, there is no substitute. Water is unique because of its very nature and the health dangers that can result from its absence. The Government have recognised on other occasions that the absence of water poses special problems with which the law needs to deal. In the Environment Protection Act 1990, the Government ensured that a disconnected property had to be classed as a statutory nuisance, which local authorities had to do something about. In the Housing Act 1985, the Government gave local authorities the power to deem a disconnected house unfit for human habitation. Imagine how wasteful we would think it if a local authority had to make a family homeless because a water company had disconnected them.
The most worrying example of all is that under the Children Act 1989, children living in a household without running water are at risk of being taken into care, which is a very important point. Do we really think that it would be right for children living in a house that has been disconnected by a water company, which happens, to have to go through the trauma of being taken into care because
Column 607of the risk to their health? Is that what the Government mean when, in the international year of the family, they talk about keeping the family together?
At this time of deregulation, the Government should remove the burden from local authority social services and environmental health departments by banning disconnections. The three main local authority organisations--the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils--support my Bill. Individual local councils of all political persuasions are voting in support of a ban on water disconnections. There is more evidence to suggest that at the time of privatisation the Government recognised that there were some special problems with water disconnections. They gave the Director General of Ofwat, the water regulator, special powers to insist that a company did not get a licence to supply water unless it had a code of practice, approved by Ofwat, on debt and disconnections. Section 7.3 of the licence conditions states that a company cannot disconnect if the customer applies to the social services for help and it asks the company to delay disconnection. The Government, therefore, must have wanted to provide some safeguard for the vulnerable--the elderly, the very young and the disabled- -who need protection.
Unfortunately, no one, either in the Government or in Ofwat, insists that the water companies inform their customers about the help that can be offered from social services. They only thing that the director general requires companies to do is to write to customers the following sentence :
"you may wish to contact the Social Services Department. They are unlikely to give you money, but they may be able to help in other ways."
I know that my constituents do not contact social services lightly. They have the pride and desire for independence about which the Government often talk approvingly, which means that they would be reluctant to go to social services unless, perhaps, it was spelt out that social services would be able to delay a disconnection. Because that help is not spelt out, the vast majority of people just suffer in silence and shame.
I have a most extreme example of someone who fell through the net and suffered in silence. He is a 50-year-old man living on his own, on invalidity benefit, with a serious hearing condition, mobility problems and a learning disability. By any definition he is a very vulnerable person. Last year, his neighbour complained to the environmental health department about the smell from the drains. That department found that that man's water had been disconnected for two and a half years. No one can convince me that he should be classified as a "won't payer" or that there was no risk to public health from his being without a water supply for two and a half years--clearly, both he and his neighbours were at risk.
Although the director general does not agree that his debt and disconnection guidelines are inadequate, he admits that he cannot get all the companies to follow them. In a press statement in November 1993 he said :
"There are still a few companies whose response has been limited and does not match up to the guidelines."
North West Water, which supplies my own constituency, has decided without any prompting from Ofwat--the body supposed to represent consumers--that it will voluntarily give customers more information. It writes to the customer that if he or she is on income support, has
Column 608children under five, has someone in the household on state pension, is a one-parent family or unemployed or has a kidney machine on the premises, those circumstances may influence the decision whether to disconnect. North West Water has reduced the number of disconnections, although I still believe that it should be reduced to zero. While I applaud the initiatives of North West Water, all those half- measures are not enough. The safeguards built in at the time of privatisation have not worked and will not work. It is impossible to give companies the power to disconnect just the "won't pays". So long as the power to disconnect exists, thousands of "can't pays" will also be disconnected, and they will include the disabled, the elderly, the sick and the very young--all those who are most vulnerable. On public health, the Government seem to be waiting for an epidemic of huge proportions before they accept that being unable to flush the toilet or wash one's hands will lead to the spread of disease. The British Medical Association, which should know how disease is spread, backs the Bill for precisely that reason. At my press conference, Dr. Taylor described the importance of hygiene. The Royal College of Physicians Public Health Faculty and other medical organisations, such as the Royal College of Midwives, also support the Bill. The Scottish medical officer, Dr. Robert Kendell, appears to disagree with the English medical officer, for he opposed the introduction of disconnections in Scotland because of the consequences of disease. Although the Bill bans disconnections, it allows companies to continue to use all other means of debt collection. Companies should offer more flexible payment methods to pay off debts. It must be recognised that water bills have risen above the inflation rate since 1988 and that the water component of income support has not been increased by a comparable amount.
People on low incomes are more likely to be able to cope if they can pay bills and debts in many small instalments. I was amazed to find citizens advice bureaux and others still reporting that some companies refuse to offer instalments to customers, almost as though the companies prefer to cut people off.
The chairman of Ofwat South-West customer service committee wrote to the National Consumer Council on 29 October 1993 as follows : "We have experienced difficulty in persuading South-West Water to make frequent payment options freely available."
The director-general of Ofwat also outlined that problem in his press release in November 1993.
Why can one company reduce the number of disconnections while another cannot? According to Ofwat figures, in the first six months of this financial year Wessex Water made no disconnections while neighbouring Southern Water made 882. That is a classic example of the difference between two adjacent water companies. The companies could pursue "won't pays" through the courts to get deductions from benefit, attachment of earnings orders and administration orders. If companies are worried about the need for sanctions, I should have thought that those were enough.
Last year, in the middle of a recession, the water companies made profits of £1.7 billion. They are therefore paying record dividends, whereas they should be more concerned about their customers than their shareholders.
The Bill ensures that pre-payment devices are installed only with the customer's consent because the Water