Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

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David Cairns: I had not got to that part of my speech.
Lady Hermon: I am sorry, but with the greatest respect to the Minister, he ought to have brought the Committee’s attention to the fact that a judgment had been issued against him. He gave an undertaking in the House on 13 June that
“all ... responses will be considered very carefully”.
The High Court has ruled that the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, which has a statutory duty and should not be set aside or ignored by a Minister, should have been listened to when it gave its response to the draft order. The consultation was reduced, and the Minister knows perfectly well from the judgment that he was highly criticised by the judge. It is a great regret that the Northern Ireland Court Service did not have that judgment available on its website this afternoon for the benefit of all members of the Committee.
Words should mean something in this House. The other interesting remark that the Minister made on 13 June in the same debate on that paving legislation was in response to an intervention from me. I asked:
“Would the Minister enlighten the Committee about the Government’s proposal to introduce water metering?”
The Minister replied:
“Yes, there will be particular reference to water metering in the main order which is out for consultation at the moment. Essentially, it will be a requirement for new build houses to have water meters installed. Secondly, we will make water meters available to any pensioner who wishes to have one installed.”—[Official Report, First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 13 June 2006; c. 3-4.]
Words should mean something. The Minister was referring to the order that we are considering this afternoon. I should like him to pinpoint for me the article in the order that makes particular reference to water metering, which is what he said it would include on 13 June. I have read the order and I have noticed that it contains almost no reference to metering—in fact, the word scarcely appears in 308 articles and 13 schedules. If my memory serves me well, there is only article 81, which is entitled “Conditions of connection concerning metering”, and—hon. Members will have to turn to halfway through the order for this—article 204, which is entitled “Right of consumer to elect for charging by reference to volume”.
Article 204 does not single out pensioners, those on low incomes, those who are vulnerable and those whom the hon. Member for Foyle has already identified and who have been analysed carefully behind the scenes by officials, as receiving preferential treatment. The Minister said that particular reference was madeto those categories. Quite the opposite is the case. Article 204 states:
“the consumer falls within any description prescribed for the purposes of this Article, the consumer may at any time give the undertaker”—
meaning the provider of the water or the sewerage—
“a notice ... requiring the undertaker to fix charges in respect of the supply by reference to the volume of water supplied.”
There is no presumption of metering at all. The onus is clearly on the consumer to apply for a meter. Unfortunately—I have not invented this; it is in black and white—article 204(3) goes on to state:
“A water undertaker is not obliged to give effect to a measured charges notice if (a) it is not reasonably practicable to fix charges in respect of the premises by reference to the volume of water supplied; or (b) to do so would involve the incurring by the undertaker of unreasonable expense.”
I should also like clarification from the Minister about a letter he sent to me on 24 October about pensioners requiring meters. I am disturbed by the letter. Again, it starts:
“Dear Sylvia, Thank you for your letter”.
However, it continues:
“All eligible pensioners will be entitled to apply for a water meter to be installed at their primary residence.”
It is not the case that pensioners broadly will be given meters. According to this letter, only eligible pensioners will get meters. Equally worrying is what will happen to a customer who has a standard charge applied and who wishes to have a meter in order to reduce the charge. In his letter the Minister says that if a pensioner opts for a meter and then discovers
“that their bills are not any cheaper, they also have the option to revert to an un-metered account within 12 months of the date of installation.”
That is extremely welcome. However, the letter continues:
“in this case the meter will not be removed, and any subsequent account holders at that address will be liable for metered charges with no option to revert.”
Why on earth should that be the case? If a pensioner moves into that house, why is there no option available to the subsequent owner of the property to revert from metering? I would like the Minister to clarify that.
Finally—there are enough points for the Minister to address—there is an issue in which I am particularly interested. It came to my attention a few weeks ago through the Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 that the Department of the Environment will play second fiddle to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in considering licences for wind farms to generate electricity. I stand on the side of the environmentalists, and the Minister has made much of the fact that an environmental obligation will be placed upon those who take over the provision of water services and sewerage charges. The Minister should have mentioned article 8 of the order, “General environmental and recreational duties”, which states:
“It shall be the duty of each of the following—
(a) a Northern Ireland department;
(b) the Authority; and
(c) every company holding an appointment as a relevant undertaker,”
to consider various conservation requirements and interests. May I remind the Minister, given the broad sweep of his portfolios, that he recently signed off a third letter to me? It was with his Department of the Environment hat on and related to serious concerns that have been raised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The worrying fact in terms of conservation and the environment is that in 1990, 16 years ago, the Select Committee on the Environment reported that the designation of areas of special scientific interest in Northern Ireland lagged many years behind the comparable site designation programme elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Minister acknowledged 16 years later, on 5 October 2006, that the Environment and Heritage Service is conscious of the need for more SSSIs and has previously acknowledged that progress in relation to designations has been slower than intended. He said that that is now being given priority.
However, I would say to the Minister that, because Northern Ireland still lags so far behind in SSSIs, many of them have been ruined beyond recognition through environmental change, agriculture, building and so on, and are now not worth saving. The Department of the Environment has not really shown a particular interest in creating a duty for various bodies to respect the environment. I would like an assurance from the Minister that, in this particular case, water and sewerage service providers will not be more destructive than they have to be in taking pipes across green fields. The Environment and Heritage Service has to date gravely disappointed members of the RSPB. Although I am not a signed-up member, I was once upon a time. Ornithology is an interest of mine, but I do not think that I have paid my dues, which I should do. It is a concern, and I raise it because the Government’s track record is woeful.
Several hon. Members rose—
The Chairman: Order. I am going to call Mr. Mackinlay next, but I urge the two speakers remaining before I bring the Minister back to be as brief as they can so that he can respond to all the points that have been made.
6.18 pm
Andrew Mackinlay: I have come along here because I am interested in both the form and substance of the order. I shall deal first with the form. I personally think that it is wrong that we are dealing with a major piece of legislation of such a scale and volume in this way. On the substance, I wish to say some things rather approvingly of its contents in a moment, but it is certainly wrong to deal with it in this way. It comes against the backdrop of last week, when the full Chamber of the House of Commons passed another piece of legislation which I broadly supported, as did the whole House—there was no Division—all in one day. If for any reason devolution does not come about, I hope that we do not do such rubber-stamping, handing down tablets of stone and law-making by decree as we are doing this afternoon. There is no getting away from it; that is not the way in which a democracy should make law for any jurisdiction. I have expressed my disappointment that the High Court declaration is not available in the Vote Office. The Vote Office is extremely important and I am dismayed that the General Office—or so we are told, but it might have a different view of the matter when we leave this room—decreed that that declaration should not be available in the Vote Office. It should have been, particularly as all 600 Members of Parliament will go through the form of approving the order, assuming that it gets through the Committee under your stewardship, Mr. Caton. I want to make it clear that I will never tire of reminding the House that we need to provide detailed scrutiny and accountability for legislation, even if we broadly support it.
The Minister has not explained why the matter did not go before the Grand Committee. That is important, too. The Grand Committee could have met here or in the Senate Chamber at Stormont. That would have sent a good signal to those in Northern Ireland who are interested in parliamentary democracy and scrutiny. They could have seen it happening on their own doorsteps. When he winds up, the Minister should indicate why this matter was not considered by the Grand Committee.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I hope that he will not be offended—if he is, it will be rather sad—when I say that I was waiting for the beef. He said that he was unhappy. Well, we are unhappy about a lot of things a lot of the time. However, at no stage—I am open to correction on this, and will give way to him—did he offer an alternative to the broad thrust of the provisions of the order. He will forgive me, but I have noticed that, rightly or wrongly, Conservatives, unlike the Labour party, offer themselves in the political marketplace in Northern Ireland. They are clearly planning to offer themselves in a number of constituencies at the next general election. They obviously see a gap in the market thanks to the reduction in the Ulster Unionist party. The relevance of that, Mr. Caton, is that I suspect that when you and I are contesting the next general election, the Conservatives will be saying to the people of Northern Ireland, “Our spokesperson expressed concern about the water provision and the rates.” He did not do it very effectively, and I want it to be noted that he did not produce the alternative that he should have provided if he was going to be so critical of the order.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: I do not take any offence. We have had a number of robust debates and exchanges. I said that I did not like having the system tied to house prices——I would rather have it tied to metering, but that is not the option before us——and that I would rather it was decided by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that is not the option before us. I also said that I wanted to listen to the debate. Sometimes I come into Committee and say what I feel from the outset, but I feel no shame at all about coming into a parliamentary meeting and listening to the debate before deciding which way to vote.
Andrew Mackinlay: That is very laudable, and it gives me the opportunity to counsel my hon. Friends about the proposed water rating system. I counsel them to be cautious and to pay attention to this matter, because they will remember—painfully—how Scotland was used as a laboratory for the poll tax. Now, Northern Ireland is undoubtedly being used as a laboratory for the new local authority rating system and for water rates. We must be very cautious about the new system because of the impact that it would have on our voters if it were introduced in England. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover says that he does not agree.
Mr. Skinner: Water is privatised in England.
Mr. Skinner: I just do not agree with that. I have been in this place for 30-odd years, and almost every year loads of money has gone from the British—the English, the Welsh, in some cases the Scottish—taxpayer to Northern Ireland. I have often referred to its public sector as almost like a socialist utopia. The sad thing is that they do not vote socialist; they vote right wing and put these berks in.
Andrew Mackinlay: On the last point, it is a great tragedy that there is not Labour representation right across the geographical area and the communities of Northern Ireland in the way that exists in England and, in particular, in the central belt of Scotland, to which Northern Ireland is comparable. But that is for another day.
My hon. Friend’s point reminds me that I wanted to say some things broadly in favour of the order. It seems that everybody has a vested interest in clarity on the water costs of Northern Ireland. There is no transparency at present; it is lost in the regional rates. There are the arguments that have been articulated by my hon. Friend about to what extent there is a subvention from the Exchequer that might or might not affect his constituents and mine to the benefit of funding in Northern Ireland. That debate, in my view, is likely to exist and be a source of aggravation unless or until there is greater disclosure and clarity about the money raised and the cost of providing the service.
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Prepared 29 November 2006