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Mr. Robertson : I confess that this is a difficult day on which to resume our debate on Scottish water, one of the most contentious issues in Scottish politics today, because our proceedings are inevitably overshadowed by the death of and mourning for John Smith. First, I should like to express publicly my gratitude and that of the whole Labour party to the Secretary of State for Scotland for the sincerity and feeling of his reaction in Inverness last Thursday to the news of John's death. Many people throughout Scotland have remarked on the honesty and frankness of the Secretary of State's instinctive comments, which were deeply moving and clearly came from the heart. We were also touched by the decision to suspend the Conservative party conference as a mark of respect. Scottish politics can often be noisy and tough, and its passion mirrors the strength of feeling on the issues that divide us. But in Scotland, too, we know when to separate the person from the message. Last week, uniquely, our whole nation put aside its political differences to grieve together for one of Scotland's greatest sons.
Although this debate takes place in tragic and unique circumstances, the subject of the new clause--Scotland's water and sewerage services--still represents one of the most important and divisive issues in Scotland today. The issue is divisive not just between the parties. How water is to be controlled, administered and financed drives a wedge right down the Conservative party as well. In the present atmosphere of non-combativeness, I shall not labour the fact that what the Government propose for water and sewerage is simply not acceptable in Scotland. To put it in the gentlest and most diplomatic way possible, what the Government are doing in relation to water is unpopular, unnecessary, impractical and just plain undemocratic. After 150 years of municipal control and administration--a century and a half in which local, close, accountable control was deemed both efficient and effective for delivering such fundamental services--the Government are handing over the service to three new super-quangos which are unelected, centralised, remote and as unaccountable as all the other quangos have turned out to be.
It need not be like that. New clause 1 and amendment No. 10, together with the consequential amendments, offer the House a practical and implementable solution to the future of Scotland's water which should attract the support of all Members of the House. There would be 12 joint water boards--exactly the same number as currently run Scotland's water services--based on the new local authorities concerned, and there would be a clear legal injunction that their members should be elected councillors from the areas that they serve. This is a practical and workable proposal. It would provide for local, open,
Column 701efficient and effective delivery of these council services. Most importantly, the administration would be close to the citizens involved.
Having, in the interests of decency and moderation, put forward a way in which the Government could satisfy public demands concerning water, I want to put a number of questions to Ministers. I do so in all innocence. How have the Government reached a position in which the once-mighty Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland languishes in fourth position and enjoys the support of fewer than 14 per cent. of the Scottish people as expressed through the ballot box ?
First, why do the Government continue to insist that their own plan for three quangos is the only course of action that is open following this proposed reorganisation ? After all, we have in new clause 1 a perfectly sensible and practical plan for Scotland's water. It is perfectly in tune with the alternatives that the Government themselves laid out in the consultative document, "Investing for Our Future", which was published two years ago. That document makes the position quite clear :
"Over the years local authorities, of various sizes and configurations, have shown that they can effectively deliver water and sewerage services."
I could not put it better, and nor could any Scottish councillor, of whatever political view.
Under option (b)--the joint board option--which the Government themselves explore, the document says :
"The creation of joint boards to undertake services which require a larger area of operation than the structure of local government units is precedented ; and it is acknowledged in the local government consultation paper as a positive way of providing certain services in the future."
That is what "Investing for our future" has to say about the alternative that I am putting before the House. In any event, the argument about how the Government can deal with the issue of water and sewerage following their proposed reorganisation has been adopted in relation to police and fire services in Scotland. These services, the importance of which is undeniable, will continue to be delivered and administered by eight joint boards.
While we are on the subject of delivery quangos and the number of organisations that will be required, may I ask why the Government have settled on the figure three ? Why is three the optimum ? In the consultative document it is not so. Why should not the number by six, eight or 12 ? The consultative document refers even to 15 as being perfectly feasible. With three centralised boards, areas will be so big that they will cease to be logical. Power and control will be taken well away from the people. We shall have three quangos, unelected and remote.
The Opposition's solution would not in any way contradict the Government's stated objective with regard to water and sewerage. It would have no effect at all on the raising of capital that might be required over the next 15 years. It would have no more impact than would the three quangos themselves on the public sector borrowing requirement, and it would have no effect whatever on the future price of water, but it would provide the important reassurance that people's views matter and that their water supplies will still be controlled locally by individuals answerable to and removable by the people themselves.
The second innocent question in my pursuit of knowledge is why the Government will not acknowledge that the principle of close, open, local, accountable control
Column 702of water, which has governed for 150 years the administration of that basic service, is now being compromised ?
The principle of municipal control of water and sewerage is hardly new. It goes back some 150 years, when far-sighted, public-spirited and far from ideological council leaders realised that public health could be guaranteed, not by a fragmented shambolic private sector, but by public control of water and sewerage supplies. Generations of civic leaders in Scotland embracing all political complexions invested public funds, bought land and lochs, constructed reservoirs, laid the pipelines and made the regulations. Their legacy today--a century and a half later--is a water supply safer, healthier and cheaper than possibly anywhere else in the world.
The Government do not have to listen to the 97 per cent. of the Strathclyde electorate in the water referendum, although they certainly should ; they need only look at the history books and learn the lessons of municipal water over the years. Even if, with the recklessness and disdain that cost them dearly in the regional elections, they continue to ignore the crushing verdict of the people, and even if they can somehow rationalise their dismissal of opinion polls which regularly and relentlessly show massive rejection of their plans, even by Conservative supporters, and even if they are daft enough, or deaf and blind enough to do all that, will Ministers not listen to the message that comes loud and clear from their own political families ?
A pretty plain view is being given to the Government by many sections of their own party in Scotland. They should listen to the words of Councillor Ian Hutchison, the leader of Eastwood district council, one of the last outposts of the Conservatism in Scotland and the local authority of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). They are close associates, but friends would be to stretch the meaning of the word slightly too far. If one had to pick out of the 5 million people in the Scottish population anyone who is not likely to be a member of the three super-quangos, Councillor Ian Hutchison is probably at the top of the list.
Councillor Ian Hutchison said :
"The board members should be directly responsible to the local electorate. I do not believe it is good enough for the Secretary of State to say they are responsible to him and through him to Parliament".
They are not my words or those of the Labour party, but the words of one of the last few Conservative activists in Scotland. What about listening to the views of the now decimated Tayside region Conservative group ? Alan Powrie wrote to me in April to explain its view :
"For your information I quote from an unsuccessful amendment which we proposed at the Water Services Committee and which . . . said The Secretary of State be urged to consider that the appointments to the new Water Authorities should be elected accountable councillors, who would be nominated by their Constituent Councils.'"
That is the view of one of the significant Conservative groups in the country at that time. It was a view shared by the Conservative groups on Edinburgh district council and Stirling district council.
Column 703Perhaps all those I have quoted and more in the Conservative party are misinformed, too. Perhaps they have all been converted by Labour propaganda and leaflets. Perhaps they are all deluded, diverted and confused, like everyone else identified by the Government as being opposed to their proposals, or--and I ask the Secretary of State in all sincerity--could it be that they, like everybody else in Scotland, have got it right and that the Government have got it wrong ?
My third question is why Ministers do not understand the fears in Scotland about water privatisation. Why do they continue to denigrate the genuine fears that exist ? Why do Conservative politicians of seniority and apparent intelligence not comprehend that words and promises are simply not reassurance enough to a electorate which is not convinced by mere words and promises from the Government ? The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), is not here this afternoon. His wife suffered a heart attack yesterday and we send him the strongest sympathy and deepest good wishes of everybody in the House. He made a real stab at putting some meat behind the words of the new clause, which will now underline the illegality in Scotland of disconnections from water supplies. It was an honourable effort and 56,000 disconnected families south of the border will look on with envious astonishment, but it was still not enough to convince people. The electorate of Scotland, including Conservatives, look at what happened in England and Wales and ask themselves the following question, and it is not a naive question : if the Government thought it so brilliant in England and Wales to privatise water, why stop at Gretna Green and Berwick-upon-Tweed ?
The bemused public seeking reassurance will recall the words of the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box on 9 March 1993 :
"Privatisation means a better, more efficient service for the consumer and no more subsidies from the taxpayer. I have no reason to doubt that water privatisation in Scotland will be effective and efficient, as elsewhere".-- [ Official Report , 9 March 1993 ; Vol. 220, c. 783.]
We were told afterwards that it was a slip of the tongue and that he had simply wrongly anticipated the result of the consultation. But people outside here will remember the words of the Prime Minister and not necessarily those of junior Ministers in the First Scottish Standing Committee on the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill. People will also look at that revealing consultative document again, and it is well worth reading. They will look at the way in which the Government outlined the different options for the future prospects for water in Scotland. I venture to suggest that they will find it significant that the option that the Government are defending in the House of Commons today, the option chosen by the Government after the consultation exercise, is described in the document in a mere 15 lines while the privatisation option, the full privatisation in accordance with England and Wales, takes up 218 lines. When people compare 15 lines with 218 lines, they come to a conclusion. One can call them misled or misinformed, but very often they are much cleverer than those who seek to hoodwink them. It is no wonder that suspicion grows.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way ; I am following his argument with care and I agree with it. Does he agree that one factor which heightened the suspicions to which he rightly draws the attention of the House was the fact that the Government have steadfastly refused, against all odds, to publish the Quayle-Monroe report, which looked into the background of the options available to the Government ?
Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that issue, which has added to the secrecy of the exercise. The decision has simply fuelled the suspicions that I identified and that Conservative Members must have taken into account and must be finding on their doorsteps. The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), are intimately familiar with the strength of people's suspicions. There has been a vote on the specific issue to remind them of the fact. All Conservative Members-- representing, as they now do, only 13.7 per cent. of the Scottish electorate--cannot but be riveted by the fact that people do not believe the way in which the Government have put forward their position.
I have offered the Government a way out. My hon. Friends and I have tabled the proposals contained in new clause 1 and amendment No. 10 which, if adopted today, would give the reassurance that privatisation is not an option.
Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside) : The hon. Gentleman seems once again to be raising the spectre of privatisation, despite the fact that in Committee my hon. Friends clearly said that that was not on the agenda. How can he reconcile his own comments on the BBC television programme "Scottish Lobby"--made after the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), had introduced in Committee his amendment to prevent water supplies from being cut off--that it was now virtually impossible to privatise Scottish water ?
Mr. Robertson : It is not I who am seeking to persuade the electorate, but the electorate who have not been persuaded by the assurances given. I have already made it clear--I think that I have been more open than many of the Government spokesmen--that the amendment tabled by the Under-Secretary of State valuably underlined the state of the existing law and attempted to put some meat on the promise. But he did not manage to make a convincing case because of the other aspects.
However, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) has a means of doing so : if the Government accept new clause 1 and amendment No. 10 today, I shall appear on "Scottish Lobby" or any other programme and say that it now looks as though the Government mean what they say and do not intend to privatise Scottish water. That is the test and I hope that, if the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside considers it important--for his own political future and for Scotland as a whole--he will take up that challenge today. I now come to my final innocent question for today. Why will not the Secretary of State, in one simple sentence today, unite his party and--if only for one fleeting moment--the whole of Scotland, by welcoming, recognising and saluting the overwhelming view of the people of Scotland ? The vast majority of the people do not see water as merely
Column 705another commodity to be traded in the marketplace. They know that it is expensive, even when plentiful ; they also know and believe that it is precious, natural and life-giving.
The Secretary of State for Scotland faces a test, and no small one. He can either plough on, driving the new quango structure through this House and the House of Lords in the face of hostility and rejection unprecedented on any issue in modern times, hoping and praying that it will all come right in a blinding revelation just before the next election--the politics of the tooth fairy--or he can put the interests of his country and its people, which on this issue happen to coincide with the interests of the survival of the Conservative party, before the unpopular and ideological model for Scotland's water. In this unique week of remarkably reflective politics, the Secretary of State should not heed me or any other politician who gives him advice : he should just listen to the people.
Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) : I shall be relatively brief. When we talk of privatisation we must recognise--as I did in Committee--that the Government's original intention was to see the privatisation of the water and sewerage systems. I do not dispute that ; I feel that we were given a guide to Government thinking when the Prime Minister made his remarks about the privatisation of Scottish water. But the Secretary of State went out to consultation and the massive response from Scotland showed that privatisation was not wanted there. It was to the Government's credit that they listened to that message and found a means of treating water and sewerage so as to achieve the objectives of providing water and sewerage services under a new local government structure that would be of benefit, in terms of cost in the longer term, and in terms of quality.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : I am closely following the hon. Gentleman's argument. Can he name any body of opinion in Scotland that supports quangos or the expansion of quangos and the quangoisation of water ?
Mr. Gallie : Given the Labour party's record of establishing quangos and the fact that the Government have recently set up so-called quangos, with enterprise companies and other organisations, with people becoming involved and giving so much of their time and effort, does not the hon. Gentleman believe that those who have given so much would argue the benefits of quangos ? The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is looking into the position of Scottish Enterprise, which is basically a quango, and it is finding much support throughout Scotland for the efforts of the enterprise companies. I see no reason to doubt that the water and sewerage authorities, providing that they deliver the goods--I have every reason to believe that they will--will achieve widespread support in the future.
Mr. Kynoch : Does my hon. Friend agree that those were choice words from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), as there are significantly fewer quangos now in Scotland than there were under the Labour Government ?
I believe that the three structures envisaged for the new water authorities, given their size, are just about right. The geographical requirements of the system have been recognised, especially with regard to the requirements for
Column 706fairly large catchment areas. The fact that the scale of water treatment is also an important element has been recognised. Transmission and distribution are major features that can benefit from the reasonable scale and geographical basis of the authorities that are to be established.
People have concentrated on the water issue in Scotland ; perhaps people have tended to forget about that other important service, sewage treatment and disposal. Local authorities do not have as good a record on that as they should have. I believe that when the bodies with sole responsibility for looking at water and sewerage provision, or sewage treatment and disposal, are concentrating their minds on those issues it will almost certainly result in their giving the people of Scotland a better service.
I must tell the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) that I spoke on that subject at the Conservative party conference and at a fringe meeting organised by the Glasgow Herald , and at that meeting I did find hostility within the Conservative party, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, on the issues of water and sewerage. But I have to say that, by the time the meeting had finished-- [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but the editor of the Glasgow Herald was there. His reporters were there. They saw exactly what happened and heard the remarks.
Quite honestly, even within the Conservative party, to our discredit, the real situation with water and sewerage, the real arguments for my right hon. Friend taking the steps that he has--despite the massive amount of information that was given, and despite the consultation paper and the detail behind it--have just not got out. But I suggest to my right hon. Friend that, if he pursues the objective as currently set out in the Bill, the people of Scotland will come to appreciate why he took that line.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Does the hon. Gentleman recall the night of 5 May, when he and I were in the Dam Park hall in Ayr and saw Labour votes piling on Labour votes, and when the people of Ayr made it quite clear that they rejected the Conservative party and its policies on water and sewerage, just as they did in the Strathclyde referendum ? Would not the hon. Gentleman be well advised to start thinking about the possibility of representing the views of his constituents, which were so clearly expressed, when he speaks in the Chamber ?
Mr. Gallie : I can remember back to the regional elections in 1990 in Dam Park. I can think back to the general election in 1992. I can think back to the district elections in 1992, when the Labour party was minimalised ; it was almost wiped out, but not sufficiently. But having said that, what Members of Parliament must do is stick by their principles and strive towards their objectives. I believe that the best interests of my constituents will be served by adopting the line that my right hon. Friend has taken. I welcome that. I would also like
Column 707against the Government's privatisation of water in Scotland and the road that the Government are going down to force privatisation ? If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he listens to his constituents, he will support us tonight.
Mr. Gallie : I do listen to my constituents. I believe that there were issues other than water. What happens in regional elections--very sadly for local authorities--is that people do not judge, nor do they vote on, the issues that are before them, such as regional handling of local government affairs. In that regional election, they forget that. They created a protest atmosphere and went down that line. I am sad about that, because it undervalued local government, which many Conservative Members value.
We particularly welcome two issues : the commitment not to have disconnections in Scotland ; and the commitment, so strongly given by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), to stand out totally against privatisation in Scotland.
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : I agree entirely with the apparent assessment of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) of the local government election results in Scotland--that it was a massive vote of no confidence in the economic policies of the Tory Government, their policies on local government reorganisation and their disastrous plans for water, sewerage and everything else. I support new clause 1, which was moved so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), and associate myself with the other new clauses and amendments standing in the names of my hon. Friends.
The Government's declared aim in the Bill is to make local services more accountable to the people of Scotland. Whatever we think about the rest of the Bill--many of us know that it is a charter for gerrymandering and nothing else--if we measure the Government's proposals on water and sewerage services on that test of accountability, they fail. Instead of making those services more accountable to the people of Scotland, the Government are proposing to do the opposite.
Water and sewerage are currently administered by authorities consisting of the elected representatives of the people, who are directly elected by the people and are directly accountable to the people. That measure of democratic accountability will be lost entirely if the Government's proposals go ahead, because the Government are saying that, instead of those elected representatives administering water and sewerage, there should be three over-centralised quangos, which, in effect, would remove any local accountability.
New clause 1 is a very sensible proposal. If the Government are hell-bent on going ahead with the rest of the local government carve-up, as proposed in the Bill, they could at least keep an element of local accountability in water and sewerage, if they accept new clause 1. The proposals contained in it are modelled by and large on a body that already exists in Scotland--the Central Scotland Water Development Board. Some people might not know about it. It consists of representatives from the various local authorities that it covers.
If the Government are hell-bent on going ahead with the carve-up of Scotland, they could still retain some local accountability if they accepted new clause 1 and accepted the water areas envisaged in it. Members of those water
Column 708boards would be elected representatives of the people. That solution, perhaps, is not as good as the one at present where the representatives are directly elected by the people on to the regional and islands councils, but at least it would offer an element of indirect election and therefore indirect accountability.
I ask the Secretary of State to consider that and bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton said about the history of municipal enterprise regarding the provision of water and sewerage services to the people of Scotland. It has never been one of nationalisation. It has never been one of an over-centralised, bureaucratic style of public ownership. The reason why the initiative was taken--on what has turned out to be one of the most successful pieces of public enterprise in the country--was not because of any Marxist, or even socialist, doctrine. People realised that, if they were to have adequate standards of public health, representatives elected at local level would have to take the initiative that private enterprise was unwilling, indeed unable, to take. The initiative grew up from grass-roots level, rather than being thrust on people by the state.
Before previous reorganisations of local government, many small towns and burghs had their own reservoirs and pipe systems to provide a good, reliable, clean water supply. As people in third-world countries know, water is one of the basic essentials of life : it is an even more fundamental necessity than food. What is true in third-world countries is just as true in so-called developed countries such as ours.
My grandfather was a Labour councillor on Cowdenbeath town council back in the 1920s. I remember that one of his proudest possessions was a photograph of him and other councillors at the annual inspection of the town's reservoir, which was Loch Glow at the time. I am sure that many councillors throughout Scotland had similar experiences. It was not just an annual outing ; the annual inspection of one of the most important services they provided for their people was something they took very seriously.
No doubt my hon. Friends from Glasgow could speak more eloquently than I about the initiative that was taken by their city fathers back in Victorian times. Many were right-wing Tories ; indeed, their economic policies may have been even more right-wing than those some of the Ministers who are present today. But they took the initiative--a public-enterprise initiative --in launching that wonderful project to provide the people of Scotland with water piped from Loch Katrine and other parts of the country.
They may have done it for selfish reasons. Perhaps they realised that public health was universally important : if the poor people in their slum housing or work places became sick, they too might be affected. Disease is no respecter of persons ; it can spread like wildfire through a whole community, regardless of whether the people in that community have money. Even if self-preservation was the motive, however, I must give those city fathers and other pioneers the credit for initiating one of the most successful examples of public enterprise that Scotland has ever seen.
Mr. Graham : As my hon. Friend may know, our Scottish water is, on average, £70 a year cheaper than English water. Wales pays an average of £233 a year for its water. Our forefathers certainly gave us a good deal--and these folk want to get their grubby hands on it.
I suppose that, at the time of the last local government reorganisation, with the advent of regionalisation, a certain amount of merging of water authorities was necessary. Now, however, the Government are proposing a gross over-centralisation--and the boards will not consist of locally elected representatives, accountable to the people directly or indirectly. The Government may claim that the privatisation threat is just a bogey man created by us ; they may say that they have no intention of privatising. They should ask the people of Scotland, who have already given their verdict in the Strathclyde referendum.
We need only observe the effects of privatisation south of the border and the number of disconnections resulting from massive price increases. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) mentioned prices. The Government's own consultation document points out that Central region has the cheapest water in the United Kingdom--possibly the cheapest in Europe--costing £20 per annum for domestic consumers. There may have been a modest price increase since, but Central regional council can nevertheless be justly proud of its record.
Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) : The Government have said that they will not privatise Scottish water in the foreseeable future. We should give them some credit for that ; after all, it is similar to what they said about the extension of VAT just before the general election. No one foresaw any such extension--but VAT is now charged on fuel.
Mr. Canavan : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, people can see what has happened south of the border as a result of privatisation, with increased charges and disconnections. They have had a drastic effect on public health : huge percentage increases have been reported in cases of dysentery. I believe that, in south Staffordshire, one in seven households in one particular multi-storey block were disconnected, and people were throwing excrement out of the windows. No wonder there is a serious threat to public health as a result of privatisation.
The Government should listen to the people. The people are afraid of privatisation ; they do not trust the Government and they reject the Bill's proposals--as the Strathclyde referendum clearly showed. The Minister may say that the referendum did not cover the whole of Scotland. Well, the recent local government elections covered the whole of Scotland--and, as I have said, they produced a massive vote of no confidence in the Tory Government, in regard to water and everything else.
I plead with the Government to listen to the voice of the people. The people of Scotland want Scotland's water to remain their property and they want democratic accountability through the elected representatives of the people. If the Government are hell-bent on destroying the status quo, they might at the very least accept my hon. Friend's new clause.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : Let me say to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) that the loss of John Smith has had an impact on all of us. This is another sad case of a man of great intelligence and ability being
Column 710taken from us far too young. Although his loss is felt most acutely by the Labour party, I think that Labour's feelings are shared by all. On behalf of the Scottish National party, let me extend our thoughts and condolences to John Smith's family and wish them all strength and courage at what must be a trying time.
I will be brief, as I know that hon. Members who were not on the Standing Committee wish to speak. Brevity, however, will not lessen my anger at the Government's proposals. Quite simply, no change is wanted in Scotland. The people of Scotland do not want water services to be taken out of local government ; they want to retain local accountability and local control.
The Government had no mandate for this move at the last general election. On the contrary, the people of Scotland rejected their policy. They certainly had no mandate at the recent local government elections : indeed, they were specifically rejected, gaining less than 14 per cent. of the Scottish vote--about 6 per cent. of the electorate. There could be no greater rejection of any Government, yet this Government are intent on forcing through their proposals for water, against the wishes of the people.
That is not fair or democratic ; in fact, it is the opposite of democracy. Scotland is powerless. The system will be run by Unionist-created quangos. It is just not good enough for three unelected quangos to meet secretly, behind closed doors, especially when they are commandeering, indeed stealing, Scotland's water assets, which were created not by central Government but by generations of local taxpayers.
The SNP wants water to be provided as a local authority service run by democratically elected councils in the public interest and for the public good. The Bill should be dumped. The message given to the Government at local elections was simply that. They should take the hint and keep water services a local authority provision. Sadly, I do not think that that will happen.
If the Government go ahead, our amendments propose an SNP alternative organisation for water and sewerage services in Scotland--water authorities organised on a regional basis with the minimum disruption of staff or services, with maximum continuity of water services provision. There would be no extra financial cost and no extra bureaucracy, which is inherent in the Government's proposals.
Our amendments outline a sensible solution, but regrettably it is not the Government's solution. The water authorities that we propose would be chosen not by the Secretary of State but by democratically elected local authorities in proportion to votes cast, following the democratic will of the people and not the will of the Secretary of State. Their chairpersons would be chosen not by the Secretary of State but by democratically elected local authorities.
Our amendments seek to reduce the Secretary of State's role and to increase the powers given to local authorities elected by the people. Meetings of the water boards should be held in public, apart from obvious safeguards in cases of exceptionally confidential matters, and minutes of their meetings should also be publicly available. There should be local authority representation on the customers council, as well as representatives from consumer and other interests, such as the disabled.
Column 711Such an open, accountable system contrasts starkly with the closed, remote and unaccountable organisations proposed by the Government. Their three giant quangos will provide at most minimal
There is an unanswered paradox in the Government's proposals. They attack regions as remote and unaccountable, yet the Government are creating even larger non-accountable water boards, and no doubt fattening them for eventual privatisation. The Government are providing no real safeguards to the general public in respect of an essential, monopolistic service that is used by everyone daily. The public cannot avoid using water services, yet there will be no public control or accountability over those assets, which generations of local taxpayers created. Now they will be commandeered or stolen by central Government and handed to quangos.
I have no questions for the Government because their minds are clearly closed on that issue, but I have a message for them : dump this unwanted stealing of Scotland's water assets. It is unwanted, unnecessary, unfair and undemocratic. They should dump their proposals, because that is what the people of Scotland want the Government to do.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : I thank the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) for his opening remarks, for which I am grateful. This is of course a difficult day to join battle across the Floor of the House on Scottish issues. Nevertheless, the future of Scottish water and sewerage is a controversial and important matter. It is no less controversial because our debate today may be a little more muted, but I hope that thereby we may shed more light in place of some of the heat that has gone before. I will begin by speaking to the Government amendments in the group. Amendment No. 82 stems from an undertaking given in Committee that we would introduce a specific reference to access for recreational purposes in clause 64. That was not by way of changing the intention behind the clause as originally drafted, but by way of making that intention clearer. The amendment fulfils the undertaking that was given.
Amendments Nos. 158 to 161 also stem from an undertaking given in Committee, to re-examine clause 109--formerly clause 105, which deals with the vesting of certain supply pipes. We looked again at the clause and have concluded that some change is required to ensure that apparatus, such as pumps, used in connection with a pipe is covered by the clause. Those amendments make the necessary changes. Amendment No. 184 is a small change suggested to us by the Scottish Consumer Council, which put in a power of work on this Bill, to ensure that authorities' complaints procedures and other features of their codes of practice are brought to the attention of customers--the potential beneficiaries of the codes. I am happy to table the necessary amendment, which I am sure is acceptable.
Amendments Nos. 83 to 92 and amendment No. 96 are purely drafting amendments, to remove any possible ambiguity from the term "sewerage services". Amendment No. 93 is a technical amendment, the effect of which is to make explicit that disconnection for non-payment of charges for domestic supplies cannot take place, whether
Column 712those charges are demanded by the water authorities under clause 73 or by the local councils acting under a clause 78 order. I am sure that that is welcome.
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : Has the right hon. Gentleman held discussions with the team of the Secretary of State for the Environment, with a view to extending his welcome amendment to the Bill to the Water Act 1989, so that that provision will apply also to England and Wales ?
Mr. Lang : I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but I have held no such discussions. It is open to the hon. Lady to draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Her question allows me to emphasise that we do things differently in Scotland, according to our priorities there. I am happy to reiterate that disconnections will remain illegal in Scotland.
Amendment No. 95 is a drafting amendment that makes clause 92 refer specifically to clause 96, which was introduced at Committee stage, rather than generally to chapter 2 of part 1. Amendments Nos. 94, 148, 149, 98 and 162 are purely drafting amendments, to insert appropriate definitions into the Bill. I commend those amendments to the House.
I refer now to the Opposition amendments. As the hon. Member for Hamilton said, new clause 1 would establish five joint boards of the new unitary authorities, to provide water and sewerage services in the areas of the current Grampian, Tayside, Central, Lothian and Strathclyde regional councils.
New clause 15 and amendment No. 1 would establish 12 new water authorities, to provide water and sewerage in the areas of the current regional and islands councils. Amendment No. 10 would ensure that the members of the new water authorities were elected councillors appointed by the new unitary authorities in the water authority areas.
The Labour party's proposals would result in water and sewerage being delivered by 12 new authorities effectively run by the new unitary local authorities, or by a mixture of such authorities and joint boards of the new unitary authorities where the water authority areas cover several unitary authorities. I hope that that sets them out succinctly. New clause 20 and amendments Nos. 9 to 24 are consequential on or secondary to those main proposals.
The Scottish National party's amendments to new clause 1, together with their new clause 30 and amendment No. 274, would ensure that members of authorities and joint boards were elected councillors appointed by the appropriate councils themselves, with the appointment in the case of those coming from joint board areas reflecting the relative strength of the political parties. There was extensive debate in Committee on those points. Consideration of clause 61, dealing with the new structure for the water and sewerage services, began at 6.45 pm on 24 March and clause 61 was agreed to just before 10.30 pm on 29 March. That gave some nine hours of debate. The arguments were fully examined and comprehensively answered.
The current structure fits the current organisation of local government into regional, district and islands councils. Those councils, however, are, for good reasons, to be replaced by the new unitary authorities. In those