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House of Lords

Wednesday, 25th October 1995.

The House met at half past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Lord Habgood

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable John Staplyton Habgood, lately Archbishop of York, having been created Baron Habgood, of Calverton in the County of Buckinghamshire, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Coggan and the Lord Walton of Detchant.

The Barony of Berners

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, I have to inform your Lordships that Her Majesty has been pleased to determine the abeyance of the Barony of Berners in favour of Pamela Vivien Kirkham. The Barony fell into abeyance in 1992 on the death of her mother Vera Ruby, Baroness Berners. The noble Baroness now attends at the Bar with her writ of summons to take her seat.

The Baroness Berners—Took the Oath.

Water Supplies: Safeguards

2.50 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they propose to take any steps on behalf of consumers to safeguard water supplies.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, it is the responsibility of the water companies to safeguard supplies to their customers.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does the Minister agree that that shows a rather naive faith in the water companies? Given that this summer some parts of the country came within a hair's breadth of running out of water supplies; given that the water companies have put up their prices by 67 per cent. in five years, which is well ahead of the rate of inflation; and given that the water company executives are probably the highest paid water company executives of any water supplying organisation in the world, private or public, surely it is up to the Government to ensure that, if we have a dry winter following a dry summer, something better can be done than simply saying, "Turn off the taps. It's someone else's fault".

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that the Government were naive. I respectfully suggest that possibly the same expression could be used about the noble Lord. The fact is that we have had the hottest, driest five months for the past 200 years. The

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drought persisted in parts of the Pennines, the Lake District and Yorkshire, and in exceptional conditions of drought there are bound to be difficulties.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has set up a body to look at the situation to see what lessons can be learnt from the drought. However, to say that the fact that it has not rained is the Government's fault or the water companies' fault is stretching things a bit far.

Lord Howell: My Lords, there was a time in days of yore when Ministers involved themselves in these matters and, perhaps I may say, with some degree of success. At the request of my noble friend Lord Callaghan, we left behind plans for national and regional grids in order to ensure that no such situation existed again. Is it not a great pity that when that Government went out of office the incoming Government scrapped all those plans, directly resulting in the serious crisis that we have had this year? Will we return to arranging some facilities for regional and national grids? There is no shortage of water in this country; there is just the problem of moving it about. The transportation of water is a matter on which the Government should exercise a superior judgment.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord asks the Government to provide a superior judgment and yet he normally criticises the Government when they do that and says that they are not listening. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, had the privilege of being Minister for Drought and then became known as the Rain Minister because, as soon as he took up that appointment, it began to rain. I thought that it began to rain then because a number of people came over from Africa and did a rain dance in Trafalgar Square. However, I should not like to detract from the noble Lord's participation in that.

There was an idea of a grid but the fact is that that would be an extremely expensive method of moving water. Also, recent demand has increased considerably, far more than was anticipated. Of course, demand increases at the driest time of the year. I am not trying to excuse the noble Lord's anxiety. We intend to look at what has happened, because it has had very serious consequences, to see what we can do to prevent it happening in future.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the supply of water, whether privately or publicly owned, remains a matter of grave public concern. Whatever the ownership, we should look very seriously at that issue. I follow the line proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. Is the House aware that, because a grid was installed in the Thames area, there was no shortage of water in the area this summer? Will the noble Earl assure the House that other water companies will place the same emphasis on the distribution of water as Thames Water appears to have done?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for congratulating Thames Water. I am sure that Thames Water's action has helped the people in its area to be supplied with water. However, the noble Lord did not refer to the fact that in Yorkshire it has

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been the driest year for years. It has rained in other parts of the country but in one particular part of Yorkshire it has not rained, and it is that part which has been worst affected.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in parts of Yorkshire there is still a threat of water being available only on alternate days? That is likely to disrupt the whole education system and economy of the area. Does the Minister think that it would be in the interests of the country as a whole to have a grid distribution system rather than industries closing and schools and universities closing departments?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a reasonable point, but that kind of decision cannot be taken on this occasion because whether or not to put in place a grid is a major decision. That cannot be taken overnight. It must be part of a strategy. The noble Baroness is right that some parts of Yorkshire have had and are still having a bad time; in particular, Halifax and Bradford. There was an application for an emergency drought order, but the hearing was postponed. Another drought order also enabled additional water to be taken from the River Wharfe. Since then, it has rained. The noble Baroness shakes her head but it has rained. We are monitoring the situation very carefully and it may be that there should be other methods of increasing the water supply.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, has the noble Earl had time to apprise himself of an incident about which I have written to him which took place at Somerton on 13th August 1995 when some 100 gallons of lindane and 5 gallons of very toxic mercury seed dressing were tipped illegally into a watercourse? The local authority was warned about that in June this year. The caller to the local authority was referred to MAFF, the Health and Safety Executive and ADAS and referred back to the local authority which said that it had no power to act. Which authority is ultimately responsible for dealing with such a situation? What power of enforcement is there, because it was only through the prompt action of local residents that a severe pollution problem was avoided?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, as befits the noble Countess, she has asked a very penetrating question of which she was good enough to give me notice. I have done my best to find out the answer. As the noble Countess has explained to the House, the answer is a good deal more complicated than might appear. I should be grateful if the noble Countess would allow me more time to look into this issue and write to her about it because, in the time available, I have not been able to find out the exact chronology of events.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that, on privatisation, the Government acting, as always, on behalf of the taxpayer forgave £5 billion of debt owed by the industry to the taxpayer? Does the noble Earl further recall that the Government gave a "green dowry", as it was called, of £1.5 million? Can the Minister tell the House how much of that money,

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taxpayers' money, has been distributed to shareholders in the new industry and how much has been used as suggested by my noble friend Lord Dubs?

Earl Ferrers: No, my Lords; I cannot answer that question without notice. The original Question asks what the Government intend to do to "safeguard water supplies" and does not mention the financial affairs of the water companies.

Lord Birkett: My Lords, as it is plain that times of exceptional drought are precisely when exceptional water supplies are needed, and if it is true that in many places it is not the levels of water in the reservoirs but the pipes, pumps and pressure involved in delivering it which are the problem, will the noble Earl use his best endeavours to persuade the water companies to put that right?

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