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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Did you notice that I have been sitting quietly during Question Time--[Hon. Members: "Unusual."] Yes, very unusual. I have been observing the questions being asked, and twice as many Opposition Members as Conservative Members have spoken. Often no Government Back-Benchers at all sought to ask supplementaries on the important subject of trade and industry. When we discuss the pay of Members of Parliament, may we discuss some aspect of performance-related pay, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker: That will be a matter for the hon. Gentleman to put to the Leader of the House tomorrow. However, I must tell the House that I am gratified to see that today we have reached a total of 20 questions plus supplementaries. I congratulate the Board of Trade team and Back-Benchers, who have, in the main, been speedy in their questions and answers today.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Further to the point of order that I put to you this morning, Madam Speaker. I understand that Mr. Speaker Weatherill's ruling of 17 February 1992 blocks the early-day motions that I attempted to table last night relating to the North Wales police and child abuse. I should be grateful if you would reconsider the position, because it now seems that one cannot table a motion or a question for oral or written answer; one cannot speak in a debate or, probably, even introduce a Bill drawing on the experience in Clwyd. One cannot raise the issue in a Select Committee or a Standing Committee either. A wall of silence will surround the passage of the Government motion later tonight.

I cannot defend that in my constituency. My constituents were involved, and there are things that should be done before that motion is passed. We should have had a debate in the House on child abuse, and the Secretary of State for Health should have made a statement on the Utting review. This morning a Welsh Office Minister tried to convince me that the Jillings report was defamatory. That is rubbish. What are they trying to hide?

Finally, I want to expose the fact that 25 years ago there was a report on Bryn Estyn, one of the homes involved in the Clwyd child abuse case, but it was never published because the Home Office suppressed it. We cannot close down debate in the House of Commons on an issue as important as child abuse.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. I have a ruling. I am quite prepared. I have carefully considered the points of order that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) raised yesterday, to which I replied, as well as this morning at 9.30 am, and have looked at the two proposed motions that she has attempted to table. I am satisfied that one of her motions breaches the campaign rule, to which she referred and to which my predecessor referred in a ruling that he gave on--the hon. Lady is correct--

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17 February 1992 at column 21. As the hon. Lady, I understand, has now been informed by the Table Office, I am content that the other motion be tabled.

Obviously, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley is aware, however, that this motion, along with the three other early-day motions that she tabled on Monday, will be withdrawn automatically as a result of the operation of the House's sub judice rule--that is the House's sub judice rule, not a ruling of the Speaker--if and when the motion setting up a tribunal of inquiry is agreed to by the House. If she is seeking a statement from a Minister or a debate on the matters before that motion is passed, she should ask questions of the Leader of the House tomorrow. She should deal with her Front-Bench team about having the subject placed on the Order Paper. Of course, she will be aware, as the House is aware, that in raising her voice in objection to the motion, which is now on the Order Paper, the setting up of the tribunal will be delayed.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South): Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker, raised by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) on performance-related pay. Like him, I sat quietly through Question Time--

Madam Speaker: Order. Performance-related pay is not a matter for me. What is the point of order for me?

Mr. Devlin: The point of order is simply that, if we were to be paid on that basis, and given that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley represents only 55,000 constituents whereas I represent 80,000, would he be paid five eighths of my salary?

Madam Speaker: If our pay were performance-related, I would say that I spend more time here than anyone.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): As the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) observed Members rising to speak in Question Time, I observed the hon. Gentleman never at any time attempting to get to his feet. Does that suggest that he has no interest in trade and industry?

Madam Speaker: I think that we have had a good exchange on the matter.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware that the Select Committee on Health is undertaking an extensive inquiry into all aspects of children's health and well-being. Will you clarify whether the ruling that you have just made means that the Select Committee cannot take evidence on Clwyd?

Madam Speaker: The hon. Lady has given me no notice of her point of order and I am not aware of how far the Select Committee has proceeded. I would certainly have to look at the matter before I could give a ruling. I would want to be absolutely clear about it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Over the years, it is inevitable that many Speakers' rulings have raised proverbial eyebrows,

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but none more so than that given by Lord Weatherill in 1992 on campaigning to which you referred. Who makes the judgment on whether something is a campaign? Who initiates it--the Government, the Speaker, or other Members? Such decisions seem to come out of thin air, when the matter is inconvenient.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. Such rulings do not come out of thin air. They come out of very deep consideration of the precedents of the House. Those precedents are sometimes changed. I am prepared to change them if it is common sense and for the convenience of the House. I have looked very carefully at the campaign ruling, especially on this issue, and have given rulings that I think are in the best interests of the House at the present time.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You have certainly been extremely helpful. Will you clarify a matter for me? Yesterday, the Government also announced that there would be a review of the care and abuse of children and of children's homes and residential accommodation throughout England and Wales. I am particularly concerned about problems that have been encountered in Cheshire, which is also very much in the news. Will you confirm that there are no restrictions on Members who want to take matters forward in respect of England and Wales, but especially in respect of Cheshire?

Madam Speaker: As far as I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is quite correct. There will be no restrictions. The Government's announcement was perfectly clear and it is being interpreted correctly by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. I have gone as far as I can. I have answered four or five points of order on this issue and I can go no further now. If the hon. Gentleman has anything to say to me, I will be pleased to see him to discuss it.

19 Jun 1996 : Column 880

Water (Supply Pipe Responsibility)

3.39 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood): I beg to move,

It is appropriate on a fine day in the middle of a fine June for the House to consider the matter of water. When I asked one of my colleagues if he would sponsor this Bill, he was moved to observe that, although he knew that new Labour was characterised by a desire to extend responsibility, he was surprised to learn that the extension of that responsibility now embraced water supply pipes. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, an elderly lady came to see me. She brought her water bills with her, which, like so many others, she was worried about not being able to pay. She also brought with her a leaflet that she had just received from the South Staffordshire water company about which she was even more worried. It was seeking to sell her an insurance policy and was accompanied by dire warnings of the consequences that would befall her if she did not take up the offer--an offer that she could not afford.

The leaflet is now being distributed across much of the country and I shall read from it because it explains what my proposed Bill is about. Under the stark heading

"They thought they were covered",

it says:

Examples are given of the expense and trauma experienced by householders who suffered such a fate before they saw the light and bought the company's insurance scheme. One person is quoted as saying:

    "I had to have all my underground pipes and drains removed. I wish the scheme had been invented earlier, as the work was very expensive."

Another person said:

    "What prompted me to get the scheme was a burst pipe--it was a very traumatic experience".

We then have a plumber who says:

    "Before the Home Service Scheme, I used to dread presenting customers with the bill at the end of a job."

I hope that the House will understand why my constituent and many like her suffer such anxiety when addressed in this way. She was already worried about her ability to pay her water bills and was then further worried by the prospect of huge repair bills and an insurance policy that she cannot afford. That is the situation that my Bill seeks to tackle.

It is neither sensible nor fair that householders should be responsible for the supply pipes that run underneath their gardens. Similar arguments apply to sewers. I have a constituent whose garden is currently awash with unpleasant emissions from broken sewers--not his--for which nobody will assume responsibility. However, my Bill starts with water supply pipes. The time has come to transfer responsibility for supply pipes from householders to water companies, and that is what the Bill would do.

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The old water authorities had come to the view that that was sensible. Before privatisation, the Government consulted on whether the new companies should be responsible for supply pipes. In relation to the problems of leakage and contamination, the Government's consultation paper said, rightly:

In the event, and no doubt influenced by the imperatives of privatisation, the Government decided not to proceed with a transfer of responsibility. That was a major missed opportunity. It is now time to put it right.

Not only would that be fair, but there would be other considerable advantages and benefits. It would help us to tackle the problem of water leakage, which currently and scandalously accounts for between a quarter and a third of all the water put into supply in this country. About a third of that leakage comes from supply pipes, for which the water companies can at present disclaim responsibility. That surely makes no sense. Water companies alone have the expertise, equipment and resources to tackle that problem; householders do not.

If responsibility for pipes through to the internal stopcock were transferred to the water companies, it would offer the opportunity for concerted action on leakage. It would also make it possible to dispense with all the troublesome valves and joints that are currently required because of the need to police the boundary between company pipes and consumer pipes. The potential benefits in terms of leakage reduction are considerable.

A recent article in the journal Utility Week made the following assessment:

What is true of leakage is also true of lead, where it is only the companies that can do what has to be done, especially in meeting the tougher targets of the new drinking water directive in promoting public health.

Above all, my proposal is fair. The present position is scandalous, anomalous and indefensible. Other utility suppliers--gas, electricity and telephones--are responsible for what they supply right up to people's homes. Consider the consequences that would follow if that were not the case. Yet water remains an anomalous exception, and the effect of the anomaly is to burden householders with a responsibility that they are unable to discharge and to remove responsibility from the water companies for essential repairs that only they can realistically undertake.

19 Jun 1996 : Column 882

As recently as a few days ago, the Director General of Water Services wrote to all the water companies to ask them how they proposed to discharge their newly acquired duty to promote the efficient use of water. I have a copy of that letter. One paragraph is headed "Customer supply-pipe leakage". This is what it says:

The letter ends:

    "Companies' plans should include their approach to supply pipe leakage, including services and assistance they offer. Some companies have introduced a free leak detection service to encourage the detection of leaks. All companies should consider this step, and how they might help their customers with the costs involved--for example by providing a low cost repair service. In certain situations, in particular, in areas affected by company water-use restrictions, companies should consider providing a free detection and repair service."

There we have the regulator telling the companies to get to grips with the issue of supply pipes, yet because of the statutory position there is no coherent approach. Some companies are doing very little. Others, led by South Staffordshire, are trying to sell profit-making insurance policies. Severn Trent Water Ltd. has a flat-rate repair scheme. North West Water Ltd. is offering free repairs for a year.

That cannot be satisfactory. A basic responsibility of that type should not depend on where one lives. That is why, as the industry's consumer service committees are starting to say, the time has come to make the companies directly responsible for supply pipes.

My final observation is designed to be helpful. Last night we irrigated Holland, and we all feel a lot better for it. Today, the water companies could make us feel better still by voluntarily assuming responsibility for people's water pipes. Their tarnished reputations would instantly be enhanced by truly Venables proportions. They do not need to wait for the legislation that I am proposing to do the right and sensible thing.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Tony Wright, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mr. Richard Burden, Mrs. Jane Kennedy, Mr. David Hanson, Mr. Jeff Rooker, Ms Estelle Morris, Mr. David Jamieson, Mr. Paul Tyler, Mr. David Nicholson, Mr. Frank Field and Miss Kate Hoey.

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