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Mrs. Helen Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Batiste: I have only a short time, and I am sure that other hon. Members would like to speak. The hon. Lady has already intervened on two or three occasions.

Clearly, we need a grid system which will shift water from areas which have it to others which do not. Kielder in Northumberland may have water this year, but it may not next year, and Northumberland may be asking Yorkshire for water next year. A system must be in place that is able to provide that water.

Leakages must be addressed, and the neglect of the infrastructure in this century must be addressed quickly. Above all, it seems to me that Yorkshire Water is responding to the crisis in a way that is still reflective of a nationalised industry. The company is looking at the crisis on the basis of trying to control demand when it should be managing supply a great deal better. I hope the message that comes from this debate today is that, for hon. Members on both sides of the House, the people must come first and the supply of water must be guaranteed.

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12.2 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): I must start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on initiating this debate. More to the point, I should congratulate her on the campaign that she has waged against the shortcomings of Yorkshire Water and the way in which its incompetence continues to threaten the health and prosperity of people in Halifax, Calderdale, Bradford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Colne valley, Leeds and surrounding areas. Together with other Labour Members from Yorkshire, my hon. Friend has been relentless in speaking up for local people against the incompetence and profiteering of their privatised water company.

I should add my congratulations to those involved in newspapers, radio and television in Yorkshire, who have been stalwart campaigners on the matter. Despite the fact that they are run by a company that does not hide its light under a bushel--a company that is rightly described as Yorkshire Conservative newspapers--I should include in that my congratulations to the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post on their campaigns.

No one who has followed this debate--or, more to the point, what has been happening this summer and autumn--could possibly doubt that Yorkshire Water is failing the people of Yorkshire. Equally, no one can doubt that Yorkshire Water is profiteering at the expense of its customers and the taxpayer. One needs only to look at the figures. Since Yorkshire Water was privatised in 1989-90, household bills have gone up by more than two thirds, or 68 per cent. Profits have more than doubled, and are up by 144 per cent. The pay and perks of company bosses have nearly quadrupled, and are up by 288 per cent. The market value of the company has more than doubled--it is up by 165 per cent. Nice work if you can get it.

The company and the Government claim that investment has increased. It did at the beginning, but it has tailed off. In any case, most of that investment was financed directly by the taxpayer. When the water industry was privatised, the Government handed over to the new private owners £6.5 billion of the taxpayer's money. Out of that bonanza at the taxpayer's expense, Yorkshire Water got £648 million. In the first five years of privatisation, Yorkshire Water invested £700 million in water supply. As I have explained, £648 million of that came from the taxpayer, leaving only £52 million--or 7 per cent.--to be met by the company from its £721 million profit.

Since privatisation, Yorkshire Water has paid no mainstream corporation tax at all. It has paid just £50 million in tax in total, and that is mainly in the form of advanced corporation tax, which the company can write off against its future tax liabilities. In short, Yorkshire Water--like the rest of the privatised water companies-- is coining it at the expense of its customers and the taxpayer. But this summer's performance shows that Yorkshire Water is not just coining it; it is incompetent into the bargain.

The company's attitude to the drought has lurched from abject complacency to total panic. To be fair to Yorkshire Water, the Government's response has been the same. The Government--in the face of all of the evidence--have gone on proclaiming that water privatisation is a "brilliant success". They have blamed any problems that the industry has faced on the awful water company customers

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who insist on having water. They have taken every opportunity to promote their hidden agenda of forcing everyone in the country to install water meters, despite the £4 billion to £5 billion that it would cost the country.

In pursuit of that unholy grail of water metering, Ministers--either deliberately or in total ignorance--have misled the House, and claimed in plain words that the customers have wasted more water than the water companies. They have patronised and insulted Labour Members who have challenged those misleading statements. That was why I published the full figures on leakages on 3 August, and published them for the first time in a form that people could understand. Would you believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the form in which the figures were published previously was in litres per household per day on the basis of a 20-hour day? That appears to be a covert effort to decimalise time.

The figures showed that the companies lost 826 million gallons of water a day, or 500,000 gallons a minute. Of the total water lost through leaks, 78 per cent. was leaked from company water pipes, leaving customers responsible for just 22 per cent.--precisely the reverse of what Ministers told the House. Yorkshire Water's record on leaks is the worst in the country. It wasted 103 million gallons a day from its own pipes. That accounts for 87 per cent. of the total leaked, while the careful customers of Yorkshire, as one would expect--I am a Yorkshireman myself--were responsible for leaking only 13 per cent. of the total.

The water that the company will lose from leaks today would meet all the water needs of Halifax and Calderdale for a fortnight. The water industry's response to the publication of the figures was to claim that we were exaggerating and that the companies were spending £4 billion on dealing with leaks. That simply was not true. I published the real figures, which showed that, far from investing £4 billion in dealing with leaks, the companies were investing about £66 million in identifying and dealing with leaks. Of that total, Yorkshire Water was investing £11 million.

The first response from the Government was a statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment, in which he said that he was very impressed with what the water companies had done. So were the people who were not getting any water. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that we should all stop moaning, and that Labour's condemnation of the leaks was "hot air".

Ten days later, the Secretary of State published a document which, in line with the Government's hidden agenda, promoted the idea of domestic water metering, and refused to set targets for cutting leaks by water companies. He also claimed--extraordinarily--that he had taken new powers in the Environment Act 1995 to promote the conservation of water. He conveniently omitted to explain that the Act placed that requirement not on the companies--as Labour proposed--but only on the customers.

The Secretary of State told people in Yorkshire that Yorkshire Water was a world-class company, and boasted that it was deploying its expertise in China and north America. Most people in Yorkshire did not share the right hon. Gentleman's thrill at that news. They took the view that the first duty of Yorkshire Water was to deploy its expertise--such as it is--in making sure that Yorkshire

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people get the water that they need and have paid for. Most people in Yorkshire do not like seeing their money going instead into speculative projects in China and north America, or, for that matter, into speculative shopping malls in Leeds. But that is what Yorkshire Water has been doing with its customers' money.

A week later, the Secretary of State changed his tune again and said that he might take action to require the water companies to cut their leaks, but he added that that would have to await the National Rivers Authority report on water conservation. Six weeks later, the NRA published its report, which vindicated everything that we had been saying. It said that reducing leaks was the most effective way of conserving water and that cutting leaks was twice as effective as installing water meters.

It is not just the experts who support what Labour has been saying. Throughout the country, people know that leaks are the main cause of the water shortage. They know that water companies are not doing enough to reduce the leaks. They know that compulsory water metering, which the Government support, would be an expensive racket at the expense of the customers. They also know and feel strongly that the water companies should never have been privatised in the first place.

Nowhere do people feel that more strongly than in Yorkshire. People have experienced hosepipe bans and drought orders. They have seen Yorkshire Water harming the environment by draining too much water out of precious lakes and rivers. They have seen Yorkshire Water forced to interrupt people's peaceful occupation of their homes and damage the environment by dispatching huge fleets of tankers all over the county. This is the county where one third of all water distributed leaks out of the company's pipes. This is the county where the water company continues to blame its customers for the shortages. This is the county where the water company officials have the cheek to suggest that local firms should shut down or relocate because they have the audacity to use too much water. This is the county where the company first promised to guarantee water supplies to residential homes for the elderly and then went back on its promise. This is the county where the company said that it needed drought orders, then that it did not--in the middle of the Tory party conference--and then that it did. Now it is not quite sure.

The company ignores its customers. As we have heard, it ignores the needs of local business. It ignores the views of the fire brigade. It ignores the views of the local authorities. All in all, the record of Yorkshire Water is a shambles and a disgrace. That shambles was created by the original privatisation of the water industry and the stupid and expensive way in which it was gone about at the expense of the taxpayers. It has been augmented since by Government complacency and the incompetence of the overpaid bosses of the company.


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