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Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): Was not that disappointing response from the Prime Minister compounded by the response from the Secretary of State for the Environment in the summer, when he told people to stop whingeing and enjoy the weather? He did not care about the people of West Yorkshire.

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Mrs. Mahon: That was the usual insult from the Secretary of State for the Environment instead of a helpful suggestion. The Prime Minister's letter continued:

It did not matter to him what my constituents felt.

Last winter was one of the wettest on record. I would have found the Prime Minister's comments about the exceptionally dry weather farcical were we not facing such a serious crisis. What does he think happens in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? People plan ahead.

Last week, the right hon. Gentleman compounded farce with insult when he replied to my intervention during the debate on the Queen's Speech by saying:

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that Yorkshire Water's planning has consisted of closing reservoirs and seeking planning permission to build on those sites?

Mrs. Mahon: That is well documented and well known to people in West Yorkshire.

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration insisted that the Government could not intervene, yet they do in other matters. In response to a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for the Army to be brought in, he said that help in distributing water by the military was impossible because the Army water tankers were busy in Bosnia. He was not concerned about the people of West Yorkshire.

The tankers have come to the rescue, but do Members have any idea of the disruption to the lives of people living round the Albert reservoir in Halifax? I took my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to see it. Yorkshire Water is paying compensation to people who live nearby.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Is it not the case that the whole tankering operation is moving 13.5 million gallons a day while 100 million gallons a day are leaking away? Could not the whole crisis have been avoided?

Mrs. Mahon: Such a test could have been set in a primary school. There are 250 tankers a day operating in Calderdale, and that figure will increase to 600 as other parts of West Yorkshire are hit by the drought. The constant noise and pollution caused by those lorries as they drive past every day are seriously disrupting people's lives.

I pay tribute to the three local councils involved and particularly to Calderdale's leader, Councillor Pam Warhurst, Councillor Paul Wyatt, who lives in the area where the tankering is in operation, chief executive Michael Ellison and Mr. Paul Steed, principal planning officer, who have all planned for the crisis. While the Prime Minister and Whitehall completely ignored the growing crisis, others were trying to do something. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would have ignored

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me for six weeks if the affected area had been Huntingdon or the home counties. In no way is the north-south divide better illustrated.

The council has already delivered 1 million litres of bottled water to schools and nursing homes, at the cost of a great deal of time and money. I hope that it will be fully recompensed. When the inquiry opened last week in Dewsbury, Yorkshire Water announced a £2 million compensation package for customers who might be hit by the cut-offs--£2 per week for each property and £15 every fortnight for the inconvenience. There will be nothing for industry, and that is not good enough. One cannot put a price on people's health or jobs.

Why did not Yorkshire Water have a long-term strategy or listen to Diana Scott, who was doing such a superb job of warning of all the folly and neglect? She was doing her job properly, but got sacked for it. Where has Ian Byatt been until recently? Why is that man paid all the money that he is? The Government have washed their hands of 600,000 people in West Yorkshire.

Yorkshire Water's long-term strategy has been to pray for rain. The way that it has insulted customers is diabolical. It makes a mockery of the term privatised business when Yorkshire Water has spent months exhorting customers not to use its product.

The tankering operation is costing £3 million a week. Imagine if that money had been spent earlier on repairs and a decent strategy. Why do the Government think that the crisis is not of their doing, when they are the guilty men and women who handed over a precious asset to a private company? The Minister said that Army tankers are not available, but that is not good enough. Pipelines can be installed in days when there is a war--we saw the most amazing logistics and operations during the Falklands and Gulf wars. Why is it thought that the people of West Yorkshire are less important than the people of Kuwait or of the Falkland Islands? Yorkshire Water did no planning until it looked into the abyss and saw the future--and only then because the company realised that cut-offs could cause it to go bankrupt.

I call on the Government to take over Yorkshire Water and to promise that customers will not have to pay for the company's folly. I ask the Government to put every resource necessary into ensuring that the people of Calderdale and Kirklees will not have their water cut off and to refuse any request to do that. There must be a full and frank public inquiry into why almost 600,000 people have had to experience threats and intimidation from a company in a first-world country, and who may now have to face the kind of hardships that confront people in third- world countries. It is time for Yorkshire Water to go and for the Government to take on the company's responsibilities.

11.23 am

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley): It is important to debate this subject this morning. I also submitted an application for an Adjournment debate this week, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on her success in the ballot. In recent months, this issue has not been wholly party political, which is a good thing. All Members of Parliament for Yorkshire have united in urging Yorkshire Water to take whatever steps are necessary, which is a positive aspect of the affair.

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I regret that the hon. Lady has made the issue party political with her speech this morning. The crisis would be taking place whether the water industry was in the private or the public sector. I have press cuttings from 1976, when Labour was in government, reporting on standpipes going up in Holmfirth. People in my constituency were being threatened with cut-offs at that time.

It is only fair to acknowledge the significant shortage of rain in recent months. I am not for a moment apologising for Yorkshire Water, and I will say some rough things about it in a moment. I was interested to note that one of the 1976 press cuttings reported that water charges might increase by 25 per cent. the following year to pay for combating the crisis. Now that the industry is in the private sector, I expect to see the company's shareholders--not its customers--pay for the measures that Yorkshire Water has had to take.

If Yorkshire Water had been in the public sector, I have no doubt that Labour would be saying that the crisis was all the Government's fault because they had not invested sufficiently in the water infrastructure. If Labour had been in government, Conservative Members would probably have said exactly the same. As the industry is in the private sector, we can stand back and be rather more objective than might otherwise have been the case.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to learn that, in 1976, I would have been one of his constituents, so I know what he is talking about. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1976, Yorkshire Water--free of any payment or levy--was able to take water from the North West, Northumberland and Severn Trent utilities? Today, the company must buy that water. That is the difference.

Mr. Riddick: Yorkshire Water is taking as much water as it can from Northumberland and the north-east now, so nothing has changed.

We can all agree that Yorkshire Water's customers among our constituents should be asked to save water. Despite the company's statement on Monday that there will be no need to introduce rota cuts before the new year, we are not yet out of the woods. It is important that the public continue to save water wherever they can. I know that my constituents are doing that, and I am sure that people throughout West Yorkshire are doing so. That should continue.

I believe, like the hon. Member for Halifax, that it is wholly intolerable in this day and age that my constituents should be faced with the possibility of having their water supply cut off 24 hours at a time. That is an appalling prospect for domestic householders and it would create extreme difficulties for pensioners, who rely in most cases on central heating to keep warm, and for parents of young families. It would also be disastrous for industry.

The textile industry became established in West Yorkshire mainly because of the ready and plentiful supply of water. The Confederation of British Wool Textiles estimates that 3,000 workers in the industry would have to be laid off if rota cuts became fully operational throughout Kirklees and Calderdale. There are a total of 50,000 jobs in Kirklees in manufacturing, textiles, engineering, chemicals and food production--all of which are major water users. If rota cuts were introduced, thousands of local people would be laid off,

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which would be wholly unacceptable, and many small companies would go out of business. Water cut-offs would be a real shocker for the local economy, and they must not be allowed to occur. Their effects on the ability of fire fighters to do their job would be disastrous, and hospitals, dentists, old people's homes and schools would also be seriously affected.

The hon. Member for Halifax was not the only person to express her concern early on. In August, before the problem became really serious and only four months into the drought, I said that this year's problem showed a lack of sufficient storage capacity. In his chairman's statement of 1990, the chairman of Yorkshire Water plc said:

In the Huddersfield Daily Examiner of September 1994, Yorkshire Water's general manager in charge of water supply was quoted as saying:

    "In the exceptional circumstances of a very dry summer and an unprecedented high demand we had no option except to take the steps we did",
which were applying for drought orders.

Clearly there is a continuing problem. The fact that we have had hosepipe bans in five of the past seven years is confirmation of that. West Yorkshire has insufficient storage capacity for water. Yorkshire Water has complained about increasing demand on the part of customers. Most companies welcome increased demand from their customers, and Yorkshire Water should have been prepared for it. As industry emerged from the recession, it was only natural to expect companies to use more water. As householders' living standards rose, so consumption of water was also likely to increase. People buy dishwashers, which use a lot of water; they buy second-hand cars, which they want to wash. People also want to water their gardens, especially in hot, dry summers. Yorkshire Water should be in a position to respond to customers' increased demands.

I have no doubt that the company is fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and recognises that rota cuts would be wholly intolerable. I am also convinced that the Minister is fully aware of how serious matters are. I was delighted that he came up to West Yorkshire last week--I was pleased to see him even if the hon. Lady was not. We had a useful meeting in Brighouse, and he was able to see for himself the tankering operation at Scammonden. Judging by his comments, privately to us and also in public, he is clearly aware of the serious nature of the problems.

I would urge the Minister not to grant the drought order to Yorkshire Water. If he does not, the company will have to take whatever steps are necessary to maintain the water supply. At this point I will read an extract from a letter I have received from one of my constituents, who takes a hard line on this matter with which I fully agree. He is a solicitor working in Huddersfield and he writes as follows:

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I agree with my constituent, but I do not agree with the hon. Member for Halifax, who wants to allow civil servants to handle the crisis--that is not the answer. It seemed to be her solution, for she called on the Government to take over Yorkshire Water.

Back in August, I raised the issue of bringing in supplies of water from the Kielder reservoir. There is some confusion about this, but I believe there is scope to increase the supply from that source, and Yorkshire Water will need to examine that option both for the immediate future and for the longer term.

Another point about 24-hour rota cuts is that, in practice, many people will fill up their baths and basins with water in advance, and may thereby use more water than they would have without the cuts.

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