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Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck): As the hon. Lady knows, my constituency is not in Yorkshire but in Northumberland. I was very much involved in the development of the Kielder reservoir when I was a member of the water authority. Given her political beliefs and her faith in the free market, does the hon. Lady recognise that my constituents who are shareholders in Northumbrian Water will benefit, receiving an increased dividend? Some good is coming from the exercise, in Northumberland if not in Yorkshire.

Mrs. Peacock: The hon. Gentleman is correct; if someone has a commodity and someone else wants it, it has to be bought, and that is what Yorkshire Water will have to do. If that benefits shareholders in the hon. Gentleman's area, good luck to them. Yorkshire Water shareholders might not benefit so much, because I believe that they should foot the bill for whatever it takes to supply water to my constituency.

We have householders, many of whom are elderly, and we have schools, nursing homes, hospitals and local businesses. I am sure that the Minister has heard a lot from local businesses recently. In my constituency, Fox's Biscuits employs 2,200 people, and it could not make biscuits or enforce hygiene in the factory without water.

Earlier this week Nigel Worne, Fox's Biscuits managing director, said:

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Of course Fox's Biscuits uses that much water; its biscuits are sold internationally--indeed, all over the world--as well as in all the best stores in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the company employs many people in my constituency, and I want that to continue.

I have had a great deal of contact with our textile companies, through the Confederation of British Wool Textiles. John Whitfield, of Thomas Carr Ltd., another large employer in my constituency, described the application for rota cuts as "a short-term, ill-considered decision" that would have "a long-term devastating effect" on local industry. Talking about three or four firms that provide another 1,000 jobs, he said:

Thomas Carr Ltd. is another firm that sends 50 per cent. of its goods for export, and this is its busiest time of the year. If it does not complete its orders, it will lose not only those but future orders, because its customers will go elsewhere to buy.

As we have already heard, earlier in the summer Yorkshire Water suggested that some of the affected companies should relocate. What arrogant nonsense. What right has Yorkshire Water to tell companies in my constituency, or anywhere else in Yorkshire, to relocate? In my constituency alone there has been millions of pounds worth of investment over the past 10 years. It is downright arrogance to say, "Sorry, we can't let you have water. Would you mind gathering up your factory and taking it 10 miles up the road?" In fact, it is disgraceful.

I urge the Minister to ensure that, if necessary, the Government will lift planning restrictions so that a temporary pipeline can be laid. I have discussed the matter several times with my hon. Friend, and I know that he is sympathetic to what we are saying. If that is the way to get water into the area, so be it--and I understand that it is now being discussed.

May I also have the Minister's assurance that the recent public inquiry will not necessarily lead to rota cuts? Last week, the general view of the media in Yorkshire was that the inquiry was merely an exercise, that rota cuts were already on the cards and that the public inquiry was little more than a waste of time. Will my hon. Friend assure my constituents and me that that is not so, and that he will ensure that every possible source of water, however expensive it may be, is explored by Yorkshire Water, so that our householders, consumers and businesses can continue their activities over the next few weeks, when clearly things will be difficult?

I repeat that there is plenty of water around. Yorkshire Water must go out and buy it and get it into our areas, perhaps by using a pipeline.

11.53 am

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): Earlier this month, a constituent of mine wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) saying:

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    blame should be laid fairly and squarely on the present government. There never has been a better case for having a National Water Grid serving a Nationalised Water Board".

I ask the Minister for three undertakings. First, I would like a clear assurance that the Government will require Yorkshire Water to take every possible action to avoid the interruption of water supplies in any part of Yorkshire in the foreseeable future.

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman assure me that the Government will not agree to any further drought order? I also ask for clarification as to whether the granting of a drought order automatically exempts Yorkshire Water from paying reasonable compensation. That is a grey area, and the Minister should clarify it this morning.

Finally, I ask for a clear undertaking that the Government will authorise a wholly independent inquiry soon, to examine several matters, especially Yorkshire Water's investment programme for repairing leaks.

Mrs. Helen Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the present proposal that such an inquiry be sponsored by Yorkshire Water is totally unsatisfactory? Is it not true that any inquiry must be completely and utterly independent of that company if it is to have any credibility for the people of Yorkshire?

Mr. Madden: I thoroughly agree. That is an absolute requirement. Moreover, there would be no confidence in any inquiry initiated by the water regulator, who is widely regarded as someone who would find it difficult to regulate his way out of a wet paper bag.

Such an inquiry should be able to investigate the ability to move water around within the region and between regions. It should also examine the closure of reservoirs that has taken place in Bradford and other parts of West Yorkshire--primarily, it would appear, to raise even more money for the shareholders of Yorkshire Water.

The inquiry should also examine the handling of the summer crisis, which, as the Minister has heard from both sides of the House, left much to be desired. Finally, it should inquire into Yorkshire Water's diversification into all sorts of business activities other than supplying water, not only in this country but around the world.

The most recent edition of Private Eye reports:

I cannot conceive of any organisation less fit to advise others on crisis management than Yorkshire Water.

I hope that in replying to this important debate, the prospect of which I suspect persuaded Yorkshire Water not to embark on rota cuts anywhere, the Minister will make it clear that he will not tolerate that company's interrupting water supplies anywhere else in Yorkshire. I also hope that he will respond to my request for undertakings.

11.57 am

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet): From what we heard earlier this week, it appears that because of recent rainfall, the immediate crisis has been postponed into the new year. However, no one knows what rain will come later this year, in the winter or even next summer, and the

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debate gives us an important opportunity to establish clearly what our priorities should be for the water industry in the future.

First and foremost, it must be clearly stated that water supply must be guaranteed, at whatever cost to the shareholders of any water company. Water must come to homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. Proposals to restrict the supply are unacceptable.

This is not a national crisis, because there is no national shortage of water. It is a local issue; water does not happen to have fallen in the places where the water companies traditionally predict that it will. The problem is therefore one involving the supply system rather than general drought conditions. It has been caused by the lack of a national grid and the lack of action to deal with leakage. These are the consequences of a century of under-investment in the water industry, and privatisation has for the first time brought large-scale investment into that industry. The problem we face is that, until now, investment has been focused on other important priorities such as improving water quality, dealing with sewage and improving the quality of rivers. Money has not been invested in the basic issue of guaranteeing the supply of water to consumers.

Weather patterns are very variable, and they are becoming increasingly unpredictable. We cannot rely on rain falling in the Pennines over the summer in a way that will guarantee water supplies to the homes that depend upon it, and Leeds is every bit as much at risk as Bradford, Halifax or any other area. We must ensure that a system is in place that will ensure water supplies to all, whatever the local conditions may be. Tankers are not the solution, as they cause havoc on the roads. Increased extraction from rivers has an enormous knock-on effect on wildlife, and we should be carefully monitoring that effect already.

Frankly, the priorities which have been established for the water industry need to be reassessed. Obviously, we want to improve the quality of our drinking water and the purity of water in our rivers, but first and foremost we must be able to deliver water to homes, schools, businesses and hospitals.

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