Examination of witnesses (Questions 466-479)|
TUESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2001
MEACHER MP AND
466. Good morning, Minister. It is always not
only a pleasure but a frequent delight to have you before this
Committee. May I ask you if you have any general remarks you wish
to make? I think we can take it we know who you are.
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed
for that felicitous welcome. I have no general comments, particularly
since I am aware that I am coming at the end of your questioning
and I think it would be superfluous particularly on this occasion.
467. May I say quite seriously this Committee
values your contributions. You have come here before us on a range
of subjects and every one of us appreciates not only the breadth
and the intelligence of your involvement and understanding of
the subject for which you are responsible but the fact that you
are so open and helpful to us. If we work you over, it is done
with affection and love.
(Mr Meacher) I do not think I have ever heard such
nice words said about me before.
468. As I did say to the previous Chief Whip
who is now in the House of Lords the other day, "You had
better be careful; you are in danger of paying me the first compliment
for 30 years." Does the government have a coherent view,
dare one ask, of how it wishes the water sector to develop?
(Mr Meacher) I hope so. That is your prerogative to
make a judgment on. This is the second Water Bill that we have
had under this administration. The purpose is to carry further
the proposals that we committed ourselves to at the water summit
which John Prescott initiated in the first three weeks when we
came into office. Several of the items in this particular Bill
reflect that ten point plan, the new statutory duty to conserve
water. We have been consulting for a considerable time about the
need for abstraction licensing changes because questionably there
has been excess abstraction with damaging environmental consequences
in the past. There is, as you know, considerable interest throughout
the industry in restructuring which probably reflects the response
to the last periodic review which was a tough periodic review
but we think got the balance right; and there are the competition
provisions which are not yet finalised but which we do intend
to put into this Bill. We hope that, as a composite package, that
is balancing the need to promote efficiency with at the same time
the public interest to ensure equity and environmental protection.
469. You will not be surprised if we have some
lacunae to point out to you at the end of our sessions, will you?
(Mr Meacher) I will not.
470. Will the new Consumer Council have to meet
(Mr Meacher) I think it is a matter for it to decide.
I would strongly be in favour of that. All of these bodies should
meet publicly unless there are overriding reasons why they should
not. If they were handling commercially sensitive information
and they could not do so, it would have to be a private session,
but I think it is unlikely that that would be the case very often,
if at all.
471. In that case, should not the legislation
make that absolutely clear: that they do meet in public unless
they are dealing with items which are confidential like local
authorities, for instance?
(Mr Meacher) We could. I think it is unusual for legislation
to specify that a body shall meet in public, but I am perfectly
prepared to consider that.
472. You will probably be aware that the Consumers'
Association and the Ofwat National Customer Council have both
expressed some concern about the way in which the Bill is currently
drafted in relation to the Consumer Council's ability to publish
information. They have expressed to us, including this morning,
a fear that the Council might feel constrained by this requirement
to have regard to whether the publication of information would
seriously or prejudicially affect the interests of an individual
body. Can you offer us any reassurance this morning that this
will not act as a fetter on the Council's ability effectively
to represent the interests of consumers?
(Mr Meacher) I would like to do so. I believe that
that constraint that you have spelt out is a reasonable one. I
think we are talking about a very unusual situation. I do not
think you would recommend that it should publish information which
significantly or prejudicially affects the interests of other
bodies. It is certainly not intended as a fetter. Again, I am
happy to look at ways of wording the draft legislation in order
to ensure that that is not the result. It is not meant to prevent
the Consumer Council being open, transparent and providing all
the information publicly which it believes it should.
473. What if the Regulator were to say to the
Consumer Council, "You have asked for this information but
I am not going to give it to you"? How does that situation
get dealt with?
(Mr Meacher) The key point in this legislation is
that for the first time the Consumer Council will be independent.
There have been claims in the past that the Consumer Council was
too dependent on the Regulator. We are making very clear that
they are a sovereign body in their own right. They are not dependent
on the Regulator and not appointed by him. They would have to
take account of what he said. If they felt that he was seeking
to restrict the provision of information that they properly needed,
they could appeal to the Secretary of State. After all, it is
the Secretary of State who appoints them, who is the guardian
of their existence and the protector of their rights. I hope that
situation will not arise but if it does he would be the person
to consider their interests.
474. You will probably be aware that both the
bodies I referred to have suggested that in the event of a disagreement
about the provision of information they might appeal to a third
party other than the Secretary of State. The suggestion has been
made of the Information Commissioner. Do you have a view, if there
is going to be a third party right of appeal, as to where that
might most properly go?
(Mr Meacher) That is another option. Since I think
we are always generally against appeals to the Secretary of State,
if there were a better, more straightforward channel, and this
is specifically in regard to the provision of information, that
probably is a better option.
475. Could not the Bill give powers to the new
Council so that it may receive all information within its remit
directly from the water companies and it was truly independent
of the Regulator? Would you be amenable to looking at that in
(Mr Meacher) The premise behind the question is that
the water companies might be unwilling to provide certain information
to the Consumer Council.
Mrs Dunwoody: Of course, you cannot contemplate
that, can you?
476. The Regulator has to have an awful lot
of information from them. Why do we not give the same strength
of powersit may not be as much because they would not be
covering such a wide field as the Regulatorbut in as much
as their remit exists why can they not have that information direct
from the water companies? If it is a problem, then and only then
may they have to appeal. I do not think that would be very often,
under those circumstances.
(Mr Meacher) The water companies are required to provide
information to the Regulator, including commercially sensitive
information, in order that he can carry out his proper function
with regard to the pricing structure within the industry. There
would be strong objection from the water companies in providing
all information of whatsoever kind, including price sensitive
information, to this independent Council. I am not sure that in
order to carry out their proper functions they need such information.
477. But do they not need a discretion? Surely,
if you have an independent body, it needs to have its own discretionary
powers and not to be told what is price sensitive, what is a commercial
secret, do not do this, you can only speak about that by a Regulator
from whom it is supposed to be completely independent.
(Mr Meacher) I would expect water companies to provide
information wherever they can to the Council. If they believed
that there was a restraint on that information without due cause,
just going back to the previous question from Mr Benn, they can
either appeal to the Secretary of State or perhaps more appropriately
to the Information Commissioner. That should ensure that they
can get the information which they need properly to carry out
478. Therefore, would the duty be on the water
companies to say what should be precluded from the public domain?
(Mr Meacher) It would be the responsibility of the
water companies when asked for information to justify why they
are not prepared to provide it. They would have to give good reason.
They certainly could not simply prohibit or refuse the provision
of information without giving an explanation and justification.
If the Council was not satisfied with that, they could take the
matter up with whichever body might be the most appropriate.
479. It is not always easy to know what people
are not telling you, Minister.
(Mr Meacher) That is very true and a very good point.
With regard to freedom of information, we have considered long
and hard in the past at meetings and committees that I have attended
as to how one gets over that. The only real answer is to have
somebody like the Information Commissioner to whom the information
is provided and it is for him or her to take a view as to whether
or not that is properly covered under the category of commercial