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Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): There is a great deal of interest in this subject--as we can see from the number of hon. Members who are present in the Chamber for the debate. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) wished to be present for the debate, but they are meeting the Secretary of State for the Environment on another issue.

I requested a debate on the crisis facing the people of West Yorkshire months ago when the privatised Yorkshire Water company first proposed standpipes and later sought Government approval to implement 24-hour rota cuts. I can tell the House about the level of anger in Halifax and in other affected areas about the actions of Yorkshire Water. The public anger is unprecedented: I have not seen the like of it since the introduction of the poll tax.

People detest the way in which Yorkshire Water has conducted its business and the way in which it has blamed its customers for the current crisis. Customers are lectured time and again, as if the present situation has nothing to do with the company. This week the Government have been asked to give Yorkshire Water the authority to impose rota cuts and I ask the Minister not to give that permission. In my speech, I shall outline the implications for both my constituents and the local economy if permission were granted and the cuts went ahead.

My position on the issue of rota cuts is absolutely clear, and I believe that is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I believe that the consequences of the 24-hour rota cuts would be so severe as to make the idea completely unacceptable. Whatever it takes and whatever it costs, the water must continue to come out of customers' taps. I think that the Government have a clear duty to ensure that that occurs.

I shall now turn to the record of Yorkshire Water since privatisation, as its abysmal mismanagement of that vital industry has led to the current crisis. We have lived through an exceptional drought; no one denies that. However, last winter was one of the wettest on record and in early spring our reservoirs were full.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most obvious causes of concern in Yorkshire is the ludicrous mismanagement of the industry by Yorkshire Water? Throughout the summer, in Calderdale and in nearby Kirklees Yorkshire Water threatened complete cut-offs, while in the immediately adjacent areas of Wakefield and Leeds people were allowed to use hosepipes until a month ago. Does my hon. Friend accept that Yorkshire Water's biggest failure is that it has not yet established the most basic, commonsense elements of the grid system? Will she press the Minister on that issue to ensure that the Government introduce a grid system, as that is surely the answer to Yorkshire's present problems?

Mrs. Mahon: My hon. Friend's comments have exposed the inadequacy of Yorkshire Water's management of the industry. I fully support his comments and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

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Upon privatisation, the water industry benefited from a debt write-off of £5 billion, a green dowry of £1.5 billion and a share underpricing of £873 million--in fact, there was the usual privatisation fix to assist the Government's friends in the City. Since privatisation, the bills to customers have increased by more than twice the rate of inflation. The people having to meet those exorbitant increases have paid for improved standards of quality that were imposed by the European Union and not by the shareholders or by the bosses of Yorkshire Water, who have simply filled their pockets. In June this year Yorkshire Water announced record profits of £161 million. Only £11 million was set aside for the repair of leaks, while the company chairman, Sir Gordon Jones, gave himself a 169 per cent. increase on his salary of £190,000.

Yorkshire Water also borrowed £50 million. However, it spent the money not on its core industry, but on speculative business ventures in China and in Europe. If some of that money had been spent on leaks and on maintenance, we might not be facing the current crisis. Months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) produced the figures to show that Yorkshire Water is top of the national league for wasting water supplies. Some 103 million gallons--or one third of the total supply--is lost every day through leakage. That is an absolutely disgraceful record.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said--especially as I suffer the double whammy of living in Halifax while representing Huddersfield. Do not the Government also have a responsibility for the current situation? They knew that there had been a hosepipe ban in Yorkshire for five out of seven years and that if there was a drought, there would be trouble. Where was the Government's strategic long-term view? Throughout the summer Ministers simply ran around like headless chickens trying to make it appear as though they were doing something constructive.

Mrs. Mahon: My hon. Friend makes his point very well. Since privatisation in 1992, Yorkshire Water's investment in repair and maintenance has fallen by £44.8 million--26 per cent--while demand has increased. As my hon. Friend said, that information was available to the Government but they failed to act upon it.

I have also discovered that the company does not employ people from the Halifax area to repair bursts or to make new connections: there is no direct labour force. The work is "outsourced"--that is privatisation-speak-- or contracted out to small contractors such as O'Donnells of Bradford on a strictly cash-limited budget. Prior to the crisis, all repair work on leaks was stopped unless a major burst occurred. In my village of Northowram, water was allowed to cascade down a steep hill for months and repairs were not made until the conditions became so dangerous that one could almost skate on the resulting ice. I understand that Kirklees and Bradford also operate with no direct work force.

Yorkshire Water has a leakage detection team that marks were leaks occur so that private firms can repair them. But sometimes repair work is not undertaken for weeks or months--if at all. Those private firms are not accountable to anyone, as Yorkshire Water is more interested in making money than in repairing leaks. I have also been informed that it had planned to implement a scheme called Operation 2000 in October, which would

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have abolished the leakage detection teams altogether. However, because of the present outcry, its abolition has been put back to January 1996. Will the Minister inform us about that proposed abolition?

Night-time waste detection teams were disbanded two years ago and Yorkshire Water now accepts that 25 per cent. is an acceptable level of leakage. Headwork teams, comprising men who dig conduits to channel water into the reservoirs and keep the silt out, have been steadily disbanded. Water is allowed to form bogs and small lakes around the reservoirs instead of being channelled into them. Silt continues to filter into the reservoirs. I have visited the reservoirs with experts, and in some areas we have seen silt up to 100 ft deep. Had that silt been cleaned out, there would have been greater capacity and, therefore, more water.

Since privatisation, the reservoir keeper has become responsible for more reservoirs, but he does not have the same number of workers as before. Two years ago, Yorkshire Water seriously considered replacing its dwindling band of skilled water workers with Securicor. Can Members imagine anything more ludicrous? That is the level of neglect that privatised industry has imposed on a vital, life-giving resource.

When the current crisis is over, Yorkshire Water's greedy and incompetent managers should be exposed to detailed public scrutiny. Never again should they be allowed to bring the health and well-being of the people and the economy of West Yorkshire to the brink of disaster. We all know that they put profit before service and that will not do. They are not fit to be in charge and those responsible must go.

I turn now to the people who will be affected by 24-hour cuts. Since the beginning of the crisis I have received many representations from the public, industry, local businesses, schools, national health service professionals, nursing homes, council offices, the fire service, charities, local pensioner groups and many others.

Mid Yorkshire chamber of commerce said last week in its objection to the tribunal considering the application for the emergency drought order:

It also wrote to me saying:

    "At no time during the development of the drought did Yorkshire Water contact the Chamber. It was the Chamber which contacted Yorkshire Water at the beginning of September to ask for hard information and offered to assist in bringing about awareness through its membership of around 2,500 firms from industry and business."
It had to take the initiative.

The West Yorkshire fire service objected to the drought order through the local evening paper, the Halifax Evening Courier, which, along with other media, including the Yorkshire Post and Radio Leeds, has sustained an excellent campaign throughout the crisis and kept the public informed. The local authority's chief fire officer said:

Mr. Jim Manuel, West Yorkshire's most senior fire officer, told the drought hearing:

    "'A fire in a large multi-storey building, we would be incapable of controlling under those circumstances.'

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    Yorkshire Water had said they could turn the mains back on within one or two hours, said Mr. Manuel. 'I think that would be largely academic'."
That is an example of Yorkshire Water's response. Old mill buildings, which are common in West Yorkshire, could present a serious hazard.

Holdsworth and Company is a local textiles firm that has tried its best to conserve water. I took my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to visit that reputable local firm. Holdsworth and Company warned that if it had to close and fell behind with production, vital exports could be lost and once lost could be gone for ever.

The Confederation of British Wool Textiles said that if water cuts became fully operational, there might be lay-offs of up to 3,000 people in Calderdale and Kirklees.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds wrote me a very witty letter saying that if the crisis were not so serious, it

    We have the tankers commandeered from chocolate makers and chemical companies to fill up in Northumbrian reservoirs."
More seriously, it said:

    "We have the rivers Wharfe and Ouse being drained--placing fish, birds and other wildlife in jeopardy. This is a prime example of the environment paying the price for poor management of water resources."
I could not agree more.

Guy Cocker of the local dental services committee told the inquiry:

Calderdale Nursing Homes Association felt the same as nursing homes were not exempt, as hospitals and police stations were. It said:

Recognising the severity of the crisis, I wrote to the Prime Minister on 17 August asking Parliament to intervene and for the Government to recall Parliament. I received only a holding letter. I wrote again on 18 September and on 22 September drawing attention to lead articles in the Evening Courier and the Yorkshire Post. I sent the Prime Minister all the information. I also wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I finally received a reply from the Prime Minister on 26 September. What a disappointment it was after waiting almost six weeks. He said:

I do not agree. Water companies have responsibilities.

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