Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 116)



Mr Breed

  100. WaterVoice believes—and I share that belief—that water customers have to be represented on the co-ordination groups and such. We are aware that the Commission invited the European consumer body BEUC to join in that, but they have not as yet taken up their invitation. Are you aware of similar concerns in other consumer bodies in other parts of Europe about this? What is your view?
  (Ms Reiter) The difficulty is that in other parts of Europe there is not a body similar to ourselves. We are the only water consumer dedicated body across Europe so that has made life rather difficult. We had looked to BEUC to actually be helpful from that point of view, but owing to their resources they felt they were not able to take the place that they were allocated on the co-ordination group. That has meant that there has been no opportunity to represent a customer view point not only from England and Wales but across Europe. We have been very disappointed by that. We have now got to a position whereby BEUC are prepared, we believe, to say to the Commission that with them not being able to take up the place because of lack of resources they would not be averse to us taking that seat if the Commission agreed to it. On Friday of last week I attended a meeting between the regulator, Phillip Fletcher, and Catherine Day (who is the new DG Environment in Brussels). We raised this question with her and she has taken a raincheck on it actually. She would like to consult her colleagues because we would be breaking tradition in Europe because they only consult with cross- European consumer bodies not individual dedicated ones. But she seemed receptive, is all I can say. We are very hopeful that, whilst it is very late in the day, we might still get the opportunity to take that seat.

  101. That is the point I was going to take up really, because by the time this all happens, some of the major decisions—cost benefit and everything else—which are going to be the very things that consumers are going to be principally interested in, might already be done and dusted.
  (Ms Reiter) I think from the Water Framework Directive that is the case, but the Bathing Water Directive is slightly different. Once we got wind that that was likely to happen, we did start working very positively with MEP's and with other bodies out there, liaising with MEP's not only from England and Wales but from other countries who also had similar concerns about the Bathing Water Directive. We attended a lot of conferences, a lot of meetings and seminars to get across the view of the consumer. The point that we tried to make to Catherine Day last week is that we do not go to Europe just to point out the England and Wales point of view. The principles on which we are arguing are those which are common across Europe (the decisions must be based on sound science, there must be a scale of affordability et cetera). The principles on which we are working are the same whether we are representing England and Wales or other water customers.
  (Mr Terry) I have a document, the latest draft, The Common Strategy on the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive. We welcome that because that should result in timely, cost effective and proper implementation across all member states, avoiding—what the Chairman was saying—the accusation that we gold plate it. We do think it is a pity that the BEUC did not take up the opportunity to have customers or consumers represented in that. It is not sufficiently high on their agenda. We could not speak for customers in Germany, but we know we could speak for customers in England and Wales and we think we might be an effective voice in such a body that just occasionally it puts up its hand and says there is a principle here about who pays, how they pay and why they pay.

  102. Did you make representations to BEUC?
  (Mr Terry) We have.

  103. What did they say?
  (Mr Terry) They will think about it. Now they have come back and said they do not think it would be a bad idea, maybe they should—
  (Ms Reiter) If the Commission will accept you.[1] The decision has been left to the Commission.

  (Mr Terry) We want to be an effective voice for customers in England and Wales. If we can help—as an ancillary function—we will, but we are not going to set out to represent customers in Germany or other nations.

  (Ms Reiter) It would be interesting to see how the consultation part of the Framework Directive will be implemented in other countries. When you talk to MEP's at these meetings and ask them how they get a consumer view, the MEP's will say that the customers and water companies talk to them about their water bills. Also, the unions are quite active in it. In fact, there are no other properly constructed bodies (as we would see them) to represent customers. It may well be that they may have to be consulted now as a result of the Framework Directive. It might be very beneficial to us.

Mr Jack

  104. You mentioned in your remarks a second ago a phrase which also appears in your evidence, "sound science". What do you think are the sources of sound science that we ought to be aware of in assessing the proposals under this Directive? Who are your sound science mentors?
  (Ms Reiter) On water quality issues I think that the basis has been the WHO requirements. I do not think I am really qualified to say more than that. I just want to be reassured that there is some scientific evidence and that it is internationally accepted that the evidence they are giving is very sound.

  105. The reason I mention that is that—as we learnt last week—there are going to be some new measures to assess the quality of water, not just, for example, the number of fish in a body of water. If, when people are working out the costs, there is going to be a lot of science sitting underneath it.
  (Ms Reiter) One of the things with us is, what is the definition of "good status"? What does that actually mean? That has not been defined. There is a lot of definition still to be done. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, I believe, before they can really begin to start work in 2003.


  106. You have a sentence in your submission which says, "The precautionary principle is a case in point where expensive preventative measures have sometimes been taken while little is known about any actual health benefits". That could be said of a whole range of issues from food safety through to environmental issues. Do you think there is a real danger here that we are trying to reach degrees of cleanliness or purity which, in practice, are irrelevant to any outcome?
  (Mr Terry) I do not think we are qualified to comment on that in absolute terms, but it is a concern that a drive for ever higher standards—that is a natural drive—without asking what is the associated benefit and on what basis do you assess that there is an improvement. I think it is probably more a question for technical people, but it is a concern.

  107. It is an issue. As far as you are concerned it is an issue.
  (Mr Terry) It is absolutely an issue.
  (Ms Reiter) If you take the drinking water standard, we have reached extraordinary high standards of drinking water quality and the cost to increase that standard by even half a per cent is very considerable. What we would want to know is are the health benefits so considerable that it is worth the cost of going up another half per cent? Or are we pushing them just because we have reached one target point therefore we ought to go up? There comes a point where the justification for going up has got to be made.
  (Mr Terry) I think there is another issue, if I might build on that issue of drinking water. The drinking water inspectorate have done a fantastic job and they have driven the standards so high now that they are immaculate, but the things that bother people now are not the last .01 per cent of a trace element: it does not look very nice. So you are moving to some of these things away from where you have a strict scientific measure to an aesthetic quality: taste and smell. Those are issues and perfectly valid issues, we think, as far as customers are concerned. I think we are sounding a little warning bell about ever and ever higher standards.

Mr Lepper

  108. Can I turn to this question of consultation that we looked at earlier. You do say in your written evidence that you wish to see the government taking a lead in educating and informing water customers and the public generally about the aims, objectives and benefits of the directives. Does that imply you feel that the government has not been taking a lead so far? It has not done enough?
  (Mr Terry) That is perhaps a subjective judgment as to whether they have done enough. I think more needs to be done and as we now move into what I call that implementation phrase between about 2003 and 2010 I think one would want to see that ratcheted up. There is a lot of technical technocrat work going on in the background in DEFRA and in EA themselves because they have looked at some studies in the Ribble area in Lancashire. It is taking place. I think it needs to step up a gear. I think the question is how do you most effectively wind it up so that there is a public consultation and a public dialogue, both about the benefits (which I accept entirely are not always pound for pound that can be measured) and the costs (which are also a legitimate area). As I say, I think one of the reasons we so much welcome your work in this Committee is that we hoped it would identify that as an issue—not just us as customer representatives—for all stakeholders. We are fully aware that we are not the only stake holder in the water environment.
  (Ms Reiter) I think it is interesting, actually, that customers, generally speaking, do not realise what they are paying for in their water bills. I think that is one of the problems and therefore we have been asking the water companies—and many of them are now implementing it—to say on the back of their bill what per centage of a customers' bill has gone towards improving the environment. We think that greater openness and greater transparency about what the customers are paying for will help them to understand the improvements that are being made on their behalf and what the cost is.

  109. In particular, the consultation on the draft river basin management plans—I think you have indicated both in your written evidence and this morning before us—that you see WaterVoice as having an important role to play in that consultation, but perhaps not the lead role. Should that reside with DEFRA, with the Environment Agency or where, and how do you see that consultation taking shape?
  (Mr Terry) I think our recent experience—and Sheila was commenting on this market research—indicates there has to be a lead organisation, an organisation that is prepared to chair a fairly diffuse stakeholder group. I think there has to be maybe the same body or maybe a different body that is prepared, if you like, to put the staff work into that. In the last particular case of market research it was chaired by DEFRA but the staff work was done by Ofwat. You could adopt a similar sort of approach. From my experience and background, I think unless you have a point of responsibility and say it is that particular group that is going to lead this process, you will end up with a process that is probably less effective. Who should it be? I would personally have thought that it probably cannot be anybody else other than DEFRA. If it were to be led by the Environment Agency it would have a particular slant; if it were to be led by the drinking water inspectorate another slant; if it were to be led by Ofwat it would have a financial regulatory slant. It seems to me the over-arching body under these circumstances would be DEFRA, but with key input from these other stakeholders, of which we regard ourselves as one.
  (Ms Reiter) I think from our point of view, because we have a regional structure—and the regional structure very, very closely allies itself to the river catchment areas, the river basin management areas—I think our committees will be quite well placed to work with the water companies and whatever bodies are put in place to consult with in order to provide a customer point of view.

  110. It sounds as if there is a view that DEFRA needs to get a move on.
  (Mr Terry) DEFRA already has a group working—I think it is called Implementation Stake Holders Working Group—of which we are a member and I know a number of other groups—Water UK are representatives of the industry and English Nature, EA, RSPB, WWF—are participating in that particular stakeholders group. But at this stage it is a stake holders group with perhaps not a clear objective that DEFRA is going to be the group that is responsible for driving through all facets of the Framework Directive. It seems to me, again, that one of the things we would like this Committee to have in its output—if I might be so bold—is to say where that responsibility should lie. But I think it would be an important point to identify.


  111. Can I just then pursue that in conclusion. You have said on a number of occasions that you welcome our inquiry. Could I ask you to sum up what you think are the major issues where answers are still needed, where the uncertainty is the greatest, where are the edges fraying the most? That would give us some navigational aids ourselves through this.
  (Mr Terry) I think the first thing is cost. Cost and time scale. Cost but time scale with it. It is going to take many years to implement. We know that it is going to be fairly costly. Even if you take the bottom end of the assessment of £4 billion and the top end at £9 billion, that is a large amount of money. I think there needs to be some homing in on what those costs are. It needs to be more than back of an envelope stuff. It needs to be the total cost. Then, how are you going to implement it, what techniques are you going to use, how are you going to plan the implementation over a period of time which gives you the most cost effective implementation? It would be silly to do one part of the clean up in one river basin that has an impact, for some reason, on another river basin. There has to be a properly defined programme that takes it through stages of what I would probably define as key milestones. And, if I might say, build into that at the same time—perhaps alongside it—the process about public education, public consultation and engaging all customers, not just water customers, customers in other stakeholders. That, I think, would be it. Cost. Time scale. Programme. Let us see it written down and then let us see if we can find out how we manage it.

Mr Breed

  112. The water charge payers of the south west would not forgive me if I did not raise the fact that they have been paying over a hundred pounds on average higher than anybody else because of the clean up around the coast which, in the end, they accepted. Recognising that that has largely ceased, unsurprisingly the bills have not been reduced. The likelihood of consumers in that part of the world accepting the sort of things that you have now been talking about would be extremely resistant, bearing in mind the experience they have had in the clean up of the coast.
  (Mr Terry) There is a major issue here. We very glibly talk about average bills, average water and sewerage bills, but there is no such thing as an average bill; it is an individual bill. The most expensive is in the south west and the cheapest is in the north east. If you now look at river basin management because that is the heart of the Framework Directive (which area has the most river basin, I do not have an answer for you) you can see that the spread of how many billions of pounds is certainly not going to be even across the country. It is going to fall differently on different regions. I cannot tell you because I do not know enough about it, whether it is going to have a bigger impact in the south west than it will in the north west (which is the region I represent). But undoubtedly it is an issue. It is an issue to which customers will want answers. I think they will want to ask why there is more cost. They are cynical. They read the recent claims in the last two to three weeks that our river water quality in this country has never been better. Absolutely true. Drinking water compliance in this country has never been better. Absolutely true. Service from the water and sewerage industry to customers, never better. Bathing water, never better, never cleaner. Then the customer has more bills. What is the logic about this? You can see the cynicism, the glaze that is likely to come across their eyes, even more the glaze across the eyes of those people in the south west.

Mr Mitchell

  113. We were told last week that of the various experimental schemes or whatever put forward by other countries, this country has not put one forward at all. Should one?
  (Mr Terry) Intellectually I would have probably said yes, but I think it is a question you should address to the Environment Agency. I would have thought so. I know they have done—and I participated in it—a theoretical study on the River Ribble in Lancashire. Sheila tells me they have done several. Whether they have gone on to the next stage which is an actual pilot study and trying to work it through in terms of effects on estuaries or effects on the Northern Irish Sea (which is an area which affects my region) I do not know, but I would say to you the work should be done. Again, if you had a total time scale and time frame you might be able to put a point here to say that it needs to have output at this particular point in time.


  114. Is there anything you wished you had said that you have not yet, or anything you have said which you wished you had not? Is there anything you think is important which has not yet been covered?
  (Mr Terry) I think very little. I think we will probably reflect and think we have said some things we wish we had not said, but no, I think we have covered all the points.

  115. Obviously our inquiry is going to take a little while and if things crop up you will no doubt be in touch with us.
  (Mr Terry) We would be very happy to respond to any specific points either in written format or, if you wanted, in an oral form. We put quite a bit of time and effort into our submission to you, but it was specifically from the perspective of us as representatives of the paying customer.

  116. We are grateful for that because it is a focussed document which is very helpful in a diffused world, if I may say so.
  (Mr Terry) Including diffuse pollution.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

1   Note by witness: "BEUC said it would depend if the Commission will accept us." Back

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