Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

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Mr. Skinner: You did.
Dr. McCrea: Here is a new convert for privatisation. I know the hon. Gentleman has a chip on his shoulder about the miners, but let us be honest—is he saying that one situation justifies the other? We have a new convert from the left of the new Labour movement whose message to his constituents is, “Let’s have privatisation, but let’s not call it that.” The DUP continues to—
Mr. Skinner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr. McCrea: No, I am not giving way. [Hon. Members:Ah!”] Actually, I will give way. I shall be delighted.
Mr. Skinner: I just want to remind the hon. Gentleman that I was talking about real privatisation when I referred to what happened to the coal industry. The Ulster Unionists—the whole lot of them—walked into the Lobby; he might well have been among them.
Dr. McCrea: I am not an Ulster Unionist, but a Democratic Unionist.
Mr. Skinner: The whole lot of them—the Democratic Unionists and all the rest. The only ones not to go in were the SDLP. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Foyle was not here at the time. What the hon. Member for South Antrim is talking about has been denied by the Minister. It is not in the order.
Several Members have alluded to the fact that it might be privatisation—that it might be. I tell the hon. Gentleman that if I thought I would be voting for privatisation, I would not do it. That would not be a big deal for our Front Bench or the Whips; they know about that anyway. What I am talking about, and I have said it consistently, is that the hon. Gentleman and his mates in particular—less so my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle—had the chance to deal with this matter themselves and at leisure and do it in a way that suited them. But the truth is that they took the money, put it into their pockets and ran away, in contrast to the reference made about Sinn Fein. That was not about wages, but expenses.
Dr. McCrea: Come on!
Mr. Skinner: So the hon. Gentleman is saying that his expenses are not valid? Is he saying that?
The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be short.
Dr. McCrea: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention was helpful. It shows that the left of the Labour party is getting riled. That tells us clearly that the hon. Gentleman is trying to cover up what he is doing today in this Committee—supporting privatisation. The Government do not call it that; they do not call things by their name any more. They are not Labour, but new Labour—they put new titles on things. However, the situation is the same whether the hon. Gentleman wants to believe it or not. He is not told about it by his Minister today, because he might change his mind. However, for anyone who knows anything about the issue, this is a major step towards privatisation. It will be interesting to see how the hon. Gentleman casts his vote.
As far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and as far as wages in the Northern Ireland Assembly are concerned, we asked the Secretary of State, “Why not close it down? Why not stop the salaries?” Of course, he did not want to. Why? It was because he had another agenda. No one else in Northern Ireland should be blamed; the hon. Gentleman’s Ministers and his Secretary of State would not do it. We threw the challenge out to him. Therefore, as far as this is concerned—
The Chairman: Order. Can we get back to the order?
Mr. Skinner: Get him into order.
The Chairman: I am trying.
Dr. McCrea: I shall certainly not argue your ruling, Mr. Caton. Sometimes we can be misled by the interventions of others, but I shall come back directly to the order.
On the method of assessment, we continue to believe that the option of a voluntary meeting, with appropriate consideration of the infrastructure cost, should be available for all Northern Ireland customers. We reject both the requirement for universal metering, which is too costly, and no metering, which is unfair for this alternative approach. As a proxy for ability to pay, the capital value of a person’s home is too inaccurate to be the only reliable method for assessing water charges.
We also believe that the argument that only the better-off would opt for metering could be negated by setting the fixed-cost element at an appropriate level. Ultimately, the wider the availability of water metering, the greater the potential for encouraging water conservation. Although we welcome metering being available to certain groups under the Government’s proposal, we do not believe that it should be limited to those groups. In reality, however, it is not clear that vulnerable groups will benefit from metering. Therefore, the metering alternative as currently proposed may prove to be a somewhat empty gesture.
I know that other hon. Members want to make points and I appreciate that you have given us leeway in the debate, Mr. Caton, so I conclude by saying simply that I will certainly endeavour to oppose the order and I will urge other hon. Members to oppose it as well.
5.55 pm
Lady Hermon: May I say again what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton, and what a delight it has been to see you manage the hon. Member for South Antrim and keep him well in line? I am sure his party leader will wish he could do the same thing.
Dr. McCrea: I would not go down that line if I were you.
Lady Hermon: I am moving on briskly, I can assure the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Skinner: A lot of your pals are.
Lady Hermon: Yes. Well, we shall continue. One of the things that the hon. Member for Bolsover said would persuade him to vote against the order this afternoon was the key issue of privatisation.
Mr. Skinner: That is not in the order.
Lady Hermon: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, who is intervening from a sedentary position, may I just deal with the issue? I pray in aid the explanatory memorandum and I praise the civil servants who go to an enormous amount of trouble to make the explanatory memorandums for all our Orders in Council as comprehensive as possible. On this occasion, the civil servants and the explanatory memorandum go further than the Minister indicated in his opening contribution to the Committee this afternoon. If my memory and my hearing serve me correctly, the Minister said that this order is not about privatisation. I am only drawing the attention of the hon. Member for Bolsover to the issue. I am sure that all members of the Committee have already read the 308 articles of and 13 schedules to the order, but I am tempted to say, “Hands up those who have read the entire order and those who will be happy to vote for it to go through this evening without even reading it.”
It is a shameful and embarrassing procedure that we go through with Orders in Council for the 1.7 million people in Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom. I am ashamed as a Member of Parliament that today we are going to countenance in two and a half hours hugely significant changes to pave the way for the privatisation of water and sewerage in Northern Ireland and to introduce charging for people, without any guarantee in the order in respect of metering, without any guarantee in the order for vulnerable categories of people, who may not be able to pay—for pensioners or for the disabled. That is not in the order.
Interestingly, what is in the explanatory memorandum, in paragraph 3, is this statement:
“The proposed reform of the water industry in Northern Ireland will involve transferring responsibility for delivery of water and sewerage services on 1 April 2007”,
which is only a few months away,
“from the Department to a government owned company (‘GoCo’). This will be appointed as (initially the sole) water undertaker and sewerage undertaker for the whole of Northern Ireland and will be run on a commercial basis subject to utility regulation.”
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): As the hon. Lady has described it, the position is very similar to that which currently applies to Scottish Water, which remains in public ownership and is in the hands of the Scottish Executive. Presumably when this new Executive are formed, they will have the ability to retain the body in public ownership.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful for that intervention. Lessons could be well learned by the Minister, who is charged with responsibilities in both the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office. I am sure that hon. Lady has read the order thoroughly, so I draw her attention to article 13—unlucky for some. It states:
“a company may be appointed—
(a) by the Department; or
(b) ... with ... authorisation given by the Department, by the Authority, to be the water undertaker or sewerage undertaker for any area.”
That means any area of Northern Ireland.
The provisions pave the way for privatisation. I received a short but telling letter signed by the Minister dated 27 August 2006, which starts, “Dear Sylvia”. That is very friendly and I thank him. However, the letter was short and terse and was about the possible privatisation of the water service. The Minister said, as he has repeated again this afternoon, that work has been undertaken
“to set up a Government Owned Company (GoCo) which will be known as Northern Ireland Water Limited.”
He added something that, interestingly, he did not need to:
“Privatisation has been ruled out for the foreseeable future.”
Of course, that means that privatisation is being aimed at—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but with the greatest respect to the Minister there is no point in his intervening from a sedentary position. If he had really meant that the order did not pave the way for privatisation, there was no need to include the words “for the foreseeable future”.
David Cairns: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Lady Hermon: Thank you. Just put it on the record that we are not heading for privatisation.
David Cairns: Even in the world of Northern Ireland politics, words must mean what they say. One cannot interpret what I have said as a prelude to privatisation. I have said that we are not here today privatising water. I have also mentioned something that has conveniently been ignored by the hon. Members for Foyle and for South Antrim and by the hon. Lady. In direct response to the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North, I must point out to them that when this matter returns to the Assembly, as I hope it will on 26 March, which is my father’s birthday, there will be a triple lock preventing privatisation from occurring.
First, the Minister in charge would have to decide that privatisation was a good idea and bring it to the Executive. Secondly, the Executive would have to decide that it was a good idea. Thirdly, there would have to be a vote in the Assembly on a cross-community basis. There is a triple lock on this moving to privatisation. The exact point made by my hon. Friend applies: this belongs to the Executive. I will not fetter what they will do, but it is up to them.
Is the Minister confirming to this Committee that his statement that privatisation is ruled out “for the foreseeable future” means that there will be no privatisation in the foreseeable future indefinitely?[Interruption.] Thank you. I am most grateful to the Minister; a triple lock will be identified to this Committee to confirm what he has just indicated in his intervention. Will the Minister confirm that he will pinpoint the article that identifies the triple lock? In fact, I shall allow him to intervene on me now.
David Cairns: I refer the hon. Lady to the article 273 of the order, which is headed “Disposal of securities, etc” and says:
“The Department shall not dispose of any securities or rights issued under Article 271 ... except ... in a case of a disposal requiring Assembly approval, with that approval”.
It continues:
“A disposal requires Assembly approval if, in the opinion of the Department, the effect of the disposal would be that the successor company is no longer controlled by the Department.”
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister. We all listened carefully to his intervention. Is there any indication that there must be a direction from the First Minister or from the Executive, or a cross-party or community support vote? No—that is not a triple lock, but a skilful deployment of the term “triple lock”, in order to give the impression, quite wrongly, that the Assembly will be able to stop privatisation.
The one thing that the Minister said that was useful and worth repeating was that words in this House must mean something. Words in this House should mean something. Let me remind him of the words that he used in this House—again, quite shamefully—in relation to an Order in Council. That was the Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which went through the House at breakneck speed on 13 June this year.
There were two things that were intriguing in what the Minister promised to do. First, in referring to the order, he said:
“The substance of the reform will be introduced in an order later this year. I launched consultation on that draft legislation on 1 June and I should like to take this opportunity to encourage all interested parties to submit their responses. I give an undertaking that all such responses will be considered very carefully.”
As we began this Committee, it was something of a curiosity that the Minister, having been at the receiving end of a High Court judgment, made absolutely no reference to it in his opening remarks until he was intervened upon.
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