Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but I beg him to answer the question, which is perfectly fair and clear. Is he trying to establish a precedent, or does he think that this is a one-off measure which should not be regarded as a precedent?

Mr. Livsey: I do not wish to extend my speech to the length of the hon. Gentleman's. I merely say that we are discussing the Water Industry Bill and I am addressing--

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Livsey: No, I shall not give way now.

We are specifically debating the Water Industry Bill. The hon. Member for West Dorset led me on to other paths, to which I have referred. If the hon. Gentleman insists that we have no influence in Wales on policy governing our greatest natural resource, that is an extreme view indeed.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: New clause 1, proposed by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), effectively allows the National Assembly for Wales to pass its own water industry Acts, amending or undoing all the provisions in the Bill which apply to England and Wales. Effectively, the hon. Gentleman wishes to redraft not the Bill, but the Government of Wales Act. I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman would wish to do that. I understand his motivation. I can well understand that many of his constituents who voted for him would sympathise with him.

The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) argued at length that this is a major constitutional step and that the real argument is about the Government of Wales Act. I can understand why Plaid Cymru wishes to raise the matter, but I cannot understand why the Tory party wishes to go through the devolution argument at such length on a Bill concerned with the management of water.

However, the House is well aware that the Assembly will not be empowered to pass primary legislation. The new clause goes well beyond the powers given to the Welsh Assembly in the Government of Wales Act. That Bill allows the Assembly to work within a framework of primary legislation which has been passed here. Thus each Bill needs to reflect the role and status of the Assembly in Wales, and to give it the necessary powers to reflect the needs of Wales. In this case, we believe that we have done so.

The Bill provides for the industry in England and Wales to operate within a consistent charging framework, providing consistent protection against disconnection and giving the same rights to customers.

10 Feb 1999 : Column 394

At the same time, the Assembly will have significant powers in this area. We propose that the Secretary of State's powers in clauses 4 and 5 should transfer to the Assembly in respect of water undertakers operating wholly or mainly in Wales--currently Dwr Cymru and Dee Valley Water.

The Assembly's powers include the power to give its own guidance to the Director General of Water Services in approving water undertakers' charges schemes. The director general must have regard to such guidance. They also include the power to make regulations concerning charges schemes.

Those regulations may cover, for example, items for which water consumers do or do not have to pay; the way in which charges are calculated and on what basis; alternative methods of charging, which should be made available to customers; a requirement for special provision to be made to assist those whom the Assembly considers to need special protection; and the criteria for entitlement to special provision and the means to establish it. Thus there are powers within the Bill to allow the Welsh Assembly to reflect the different needs of Wales in the management of water resources.

Mr. Dafis: I ask for clarification; it is better to have it at this stage than later. Is the Minister saying that the Assembly could ensure that a charging policy significantly different from that in England might be pursued in Wales? May we in Wales not implement any proposal that would encourage and facilitate the slide towards metering? Could the Assembly ensure that we move towards a fair system of charging, based on council tax banding, for example? Is he saying that the Assembly would be able to ensure such an outcome?

Mr. Jones: The Government are still open to considering whether we should move towards a charging system based on council tax banding, but the hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Bill allows for free metering to be established on both sides of the border. I am surprised that he would want Welsh consumers not to have the right that would apply on the other side of the border. I realise that his constituency of Ceredigion is not that close to the border, and he might feel a bit more wary about presenting such a policy were he representing a constituency such as Brecon and Radnorshire. Clearly, Plaid Cymru's ambitions do not extend much further east than the Cambrian mountains.

We consider that--

Mr. Letwin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman had sufficient time to make his contribution, but I will give way.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My question is purely for clarification. Before he took the intervention from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), was the Minister referring to clause 5 and the powers of the Secretary of State by regulations to make provisions for charging? Does he accept that any such transfer would of course be by a transfer of functions order or by the enlargement of the draft transfer of functions order?

Mr. Jones: As I understand it, there are powers that would allow the Welsh Assembly to make different provision for charging procedures within Wales.

10 Feb 1999 : Column 395

We consider that these powers represent a significant and appropriate transfer of responsibilities, complementing the many other responsibilities relating to the water industry which the Assembly will inherit. In the light of that reassurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Burns: I had not intended to make a speech at this stage, but the Minister said something so fundamental that it is important to clear the matter up now, so that we are under no misapprehensions as to what he said.

I understood from our debate in Committee that clause 5 and the words

apply to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and that he, within the ambit of the Bill, will make the regulations and give the instructions to the regulator. It never occurred to me during those debates that there was any intention to transfer those powers to the Secretary of State for Wales or any other individual.

I would appreciate it if the junior Minister intervened to settle the matter, on a point of information. He will agree, in the light of our debate, that the matter is very important.

Mr. Rowlands: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: I will, and I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

Mr. Rowlands: Through the hon. Gentleman, may I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether some of these issues will be the subject of a concordat?

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Through me, he invited the Minister to reply. I should be grateful if the Minister replied to my point and then dealt with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I ask the Minister to clear this point up, so that there can be no mistake and no misunderstanding. Will he clarify the reference in clause 5 to "the Secretary of State"? Which Secretary of State is referred to? Are there any proposals to transfer the powers in clause 5 to the Secretary of State for Wales? That is an urgent and important point for the Assembly.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: So that there will be no misunderstanding, I should say that the powers to be transferred will be only secondary powers and powers of the Secretary of State to give guidance. No powers to make or set aside primary legislation will be transferred.

Mr. Burns: Is the Minister saying that, for Wales, there will be a transfer of functions from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones indicated dissent.

Mr. Burns: Will the Minister clarify?

10 Feb 1999 : Column 396

8.45 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Interventions should come voluntarily: in the other direction, as it were. The hon. Gentleman makes matters untidy by inviting interventions. He should make his point so that we can get on with the business.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that that is untidy, but the Minister unexpectedly made some comments that made the whole subject somewhat untidy and confusing. I thought that the easiest way to tidy it up would be to take that slightly unconventional approach. However, I fully accept your ruling.

Obviously, we will read Hansard extremely carefully tomorrow morning because a potential problem has unexpectedly arisen with regard to the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State. The problem may not exist and if we can clear that matter up, it will put all our minds at rest.

Next Section

IndexHome Page