Draft Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

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Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend mentioned transparency, and on that basis he welcomes the order. Does he recognise that we do not have transparency about what will stem from the order? We do not know the story with the licence, the strategic business plan or with the Secretary of State’s agreement with the Treasury back in 2005. There are huge questions about where the assumptions on capital value came from. There are basic questions as to why we are talking about a situation where the issues of Crown immunity are being considered in a particular way in relation to corporate immunity as a way of getting around the European Commission letter of formal notice.
The Chairman: Order. That intervention was too long.
Andrew Mackinlay: All my hon. Friend’s comments might have some validity, but that does not detract from the fact that at present there is no transparency. People cannot easily identify their costs or their contributions to the Water Service. I listened to Opposition Members and one said—I think it was a Conservative Member, but I am open to correction—that people in Northern Ireland do not want the change. That might or might not be so, but it is a fact that the water and sewerage service of Northern Ireland is in a chronic condition. It is in a bad way. Anyone who has the interests of Northern Ireland and the wider environmental interests of the United Kingdom at heart must recognise that the question of water quality and sewage disposition and processing needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency.
I noticed that article 280 relates to the disposal of sewage into water courses and so on. So far as I can make out—I have looked at the order and tried to study it—there seems to be silence on the emission of sewage into the open sea. It is our common sea, a sea that is shared by many of our colleagues from Scots constituencies. I think that we all recognise that we have a general obligation. Sewage that should be treated is not being treated and is being disposed of into the sea because of lack of governance in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century save for several periods of a few months in which there was some rule from Stormont by devolved Assembly.
The water and sewerage systems are in a parlous state and need to be addressed. I hope that the Minister can tell us what impact all that has on the sea and beaches around Northern Ireland, which are delicate. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about the fragile nature of some of our environmental sites in Northern Ireland, which are among the richest in Europe. I deliberately mention Europe because those sites are critical for wildlife, flora, fauna and bird migration, and we all have a duty to have regard for those matters.
I am disappointed by the Government’s failure to use the opportunity presented by the order to address a glaring omission in the Northern Ireland statute book: the absence of an environmental protection agency. Articles 7 and 8 instruct that there shall be guidance on environmental matters, but that is worryingly qualified by the words “where practicable”. We pass an awful lot of legislation here for England and Wales in which that phrase is used. No doubt the Scottish Parliament uses it too.
One could live comfortably with that potential cop-out if one knew that in Northern Ireland—as in every other part of western Europe, not just the UK—there was an environmental protection agency at arm’s length from the Government. Northern Ireland is unique in not having such an agency. All our near neighbours have one: Scotland, England and the Republic of Ireland each have one and the Welsh Assembly created one, but Northern Ireland does not have one.
Who will police and call to book Her Majesty’s Government or the Government of Northern Ireland when they are dilatory in protecting our environment generally and particularly in relation to water? If there were backsliding, an environmental protection agency could prosecute under article 299 on prosecutions, with which I am sure that everyone is familiar, but no such agency is listed as being the body that can initiate prosecutions because no such body exists.
The Chairman: Order. We are moving away from the order again, and I would like to call the next speaker very soon.
Andrew Mackinlay: I have finished on that point, but I disagree that this issue is not relevant. It is core to this business; it is the other side of the coin. If we have this legislation, we need people to pursue it and we cannot have the Government being judge and jury in their own cause.
My next point concerns article 35—I am actually referring to article 35, Mr. Caton—which deals with penalties. I note that article does not provide for penalties in relation to environmental matters, which are dealt with in article 7, or water quality. Article 108 states that there will be a duty in relation to water quality, but article 35 does not provide for the appropriate penalty when there is a deficiency in water quality. I would have thought that was core business for this order; if water quality is demanded, which is correct, the penalties should be explicit under article 35. Hon. Members will, of course, have noticed that.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle referred to the regime that is now being prepared and put in place to deal with what is referred to as a smart depth strategy—that should certainly exercise all hon. Members, particularly Labour Members. I am a realist and I also have a vested interest on behalf of my ratepayers and taxpayers, as every hon. Member does, to ensure that people pay their way—we do not support people getting on a bus without paying. Clearly, if there is going to be a charge for water, people should pay and it needs to be collected.
However, I have concerns about putting in place a regime, which was fairly and with precision described to the Committee by my hon. Friend as a way to clobber some of the poorest hardest. Every hon. Member recognises that we have to collect the revenue for services and this service is the same as all others. You, Mr. Caton, I am sure and myself have considerable reservations about private debt collection agencies. Frankly, all hon. Members have enough evidence in our constituencies to know that the public sector generally employs people who are little more than thugs in many areas in terms of collecting resources. I want an assurance from the Minister that, in this case, although people may be skilled, professional and enthusiastic in fulfilling their duties of bringing in debts, they will not trespass over that line as so many debt collectors do. Bailiffs, as they are sometimes called, screw some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in a way that is unacceptable from a humanitarian point of view. The Minister needs to reassure the Committee that that will not happen in this case and is not being planned at the present time. If by chance he is still the Minister with stewardship for these matters after 12 April, I hope that he will monitor the situation.
6.37 pm
Lembit Öpik: I have served on Northern Ireland matters longer than anybody else on this Committee and this order is the epitome of everything that is going wrong in the Government’s approach towards direct rule in Northern Ireland. There are 308 articles, 13 schedules and we have had a two and a half hour debate with no opportunity to amend the order.
The order has caused a lot of controversy—not just because the content is so abhorrent to many of us, but because of the process by which it has been forced through. The Liberal Democrats have consistently criticised the procedure on orders in council for at least two years. We have made suggestions to the Government as to how to improve the scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation and we even passed an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 2006 earlier this year in another place. Yet still the Government have done nothing to address the situation. Will the Government now take heed of Mr. Justice Weatherup who has declared that the draft order has not been subject to full consultation?
We have said on a number of occasions that the system of orders in council is hopelessly inadequate. Last autumn, the Secretary of State wrote to me asking for our suggestions as to how to improve the scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation. Following discussions with colleagues in another place, we responded to the Secretary of State on 2 November 2005 with a number of ideas as to how to bring the views of political parties in Northern Ireland and those of political parties and individuals with an interest in these matters here forward in a way that adequately allows attention to be paid by both Houses of Parliament to suggestions and improvements. It took almost five months for me to receive a response from the Secretary of State.
The letter may have mentioned the deadlines that had by then been established, and the hope of getting the Assembly up and running by 24 November 2006. However, there was no response—considered or otherwise—to the suggestions that I had made to improve scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation.
It has now been more than a year since that initial consultation, and very little progress has been made in improving in any way the process of dealing with Northern Ireland legislation in Westminster. We cannot go on like that. We cannot keep legislating for Northern Ireland by the Order-in-Council process. It is totally ineffective.
On 13 July this year, an amendment was passed in the other place to allow Orders in Council to be considered with amendments. That was a genuine attempt to reform the process of legislating for Northern Ireland on weighty matters such as the one before us. It is ludicrous that Parliament has to consider what is actually primary legislation for Northern Ireland on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. When this House considered the amendment on 25 July, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) said:
“the Government have given an undertaking that, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 766.]
Lord Rooker confirmed that on the same day in another place, adding:
“I refer to the opportunity, agreed through the usual channels, for an amendability stage in parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council. We will also ensure that we legislate for Northern Ireland by a Bill—primary legislation—wherever appropriate.”—[Official Report, House of Lords 25 July 2006; Vol. 684, c. 1740.]
It is now 28 November, and we have not seen devolved power restored to the Assembly, nor have we—
The Chairman: Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a certain amount of freedom to discuss the method of making orders. I should be grateful if he could now proceed to the specific order.
Lembit Öpik: If I may finish the sentence, I shall. No measures have been quickly introduced to improve the quality of scrutiny in Westminster and I have made that point clearly, as have others. The reason why I mention that point is that the Government are now actively turning their allies away from supporting their approach towards direct rule. The Minister should understand that, by getting the backs up of people who should be supporters of the Government’s efforts to legislate in Northern Ireland, the Government are creating a rod for their own back, and that makes it very difficult for us to be sympathetic to the stuff that they propose.
I turn to the order itself, and I must place on record the concerns that I have on its content. The Minister treats the Consumer Council as if it were some kind of political party—as if it were partisan, with some reason to have a go at the Government. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is merely doing its job. Another group that is doing its job, except that it is indeed a group of politicians, is the Programme for Government Committee, which has also asked for deferral to the Assembly of this important issue, and which has written to the Secretary of State to request that. All that has fallen on deaf ears. The Minister seems utterly determined to push something through even though it is manifestly not in the interests of Northern Ireland rate payers.
In the same context, we know that rate payers already pay for water and sewage services through their rates. The debate is not on whether they should have a free ride in Northern Ireland; the debate is on how the process should be handled. It is grossly unfair to expect the people of Northern Ireland to pay twice for the same services, but that is what the Minister is in effect proposing. The people of Northern Ireland are being asked, actually, to pay for the decades of under-investment that happened under direct rule, although they are not responsible for the diversion of funds and for the under-investment in infrastructure.
Though investment in water and sewerage services is obviously crucial, no one is happy with the tap tax, as it is being called. The Government are proposing it, but have done nothing to address the manifest unfairness that will lead to some of the most vulnerable in society being unable afford a basic human necessity.
Ann McKechin: Does the hon. Gentleman consider this system particularly different from that which applies in Scotland, which is administered by the Liberal Democrat-Labour Executive?
Lembit Öpik: I meant to comment on the hon. Lady’s naive optimism about her Government. We already know that the same rules do not apply in the way that Northern Ireland is treated. The hon. Member for Bolsover has naively fooled himself into thinking that this is nothing to do with privatisation. The Government have persistently ignored the interests of Northern Ireland. For example, on student fees, having promised in a manifesto commitment not to introduce student fees throughout Britain, they legislated to do exactly the opposite.
The Chairman: Order. Can we get back to the order?
Lembit Öpik: With respect, Mr. Caton, I shall explain why this is relevant.
Mr. Skinner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Lembit Öpik: No, there is not time.
Mr. Skinner: Well, you should keep you bloody trap shut.
Lembit Öpik: I am not sure that that is parliamentary language. I will not be provoked into giving way.
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