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House of Lords

Monday, 27th November 1995.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Water Supply

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What assessment they have made of the problems of water supply in 1995 and what action they propose to take to improve supply.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, in response to a request from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, the National Rivers Authority published on 31st August an assessment of the water supply situation in England and Wales. A further such assessment will be published on 15th December.

On 1st September, my right honourable friend announced a review of the lessons which should be learned from the drought and of the action to be taken for the future. It is the responsibility of the water companies to safeguard supplies to their customers.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Is he aware that it is not clear whether the Government have completed their assessment of the water crisis that affected many parts of the country this year, and continues to do so in Yorkshire, and whether the Government will announce eventually the result of their work on the water crisis? Further, does the Minister agree that we have had a serious situation this year; that in Yorkshire it continues to be extremely serious; and that that follows one of the wettest winters that we have had? Is it not the case that other companies in the Yorkshire area (Northumberland and York Water) are flush with water and can supply water to Yorkshire Water? Is not there a problem over the water supply in this country? Do not the Government have ultimately to take responsibility to ensure that the water supplies are safeguarded?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, by the time the noble Lord reached the end of that question, I had rather forgotten where it had begun. As I have said, we shall publish the results of our review of this year's drought and the lessons to be learnt from it. Some of that may well cover whether there are areas in the country which need to take action outside their own borders to safeguard their water supplies. I am aware for instance that the Thames region may well need water from outside its own borders, but there seems little justification for installing extremely expensive systems to move water over large distances if they are to be needed only once every 100 years.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Lord is no doubt aware that there is increasing concern over water leakage which is probably of the order of 20 per cent.

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Has there been any improvement in the technology for identifying and dealing with leakages? For example, the gas industry has had to deal with this problem for years and has done so very successfully.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the water industry faces problems over leakages which the gas and electricity industries do not. Both of them have good technologies for locating leaks. In continental water systems, which are high pressure, it is usually pretty obvious where a leak occurs because one gets a fountain coming out of the street or the ground. With British low water pressure systems it can be extremely difficult to tell where the leak is. Indeed if one closes off one leak another one often occurs a little distance away. The entire main may need to be replaced to solve the leakage problem as a whole rather than spend money on finding the exact location of one leak.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is in draft a Water Conservation Bill which would introduce mandatory leakage targets for water companies; oblige water companies to encourage the installation of water efficient devices in homes; and institute a review of water abstraction licences affecting important wild life sites? Is the noble Lord further aware that Mr. Richard Burden MP, an officer of the All-Party Water Group, has come very high in the list of those who are to introduce Private Members' Bills in another place? Will that Bill have government support?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I cannot possibly answer that question.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this country has so far spent, or is committed to spend, more than £10,000 million implementing various European water directives which, in the opinion of the water companies themselves and of Ofwat, and indeed of our Department of Health, are largely wasteful? Would not the Government therefore do well to emulate most of the other European countries and ignore the directives in question, thereby liberating thousands of millions of pounds for problems of supply?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, for me and, I imagine, most of the House, clean water and clean bathing beaches are something that we expect and enjoy. I did not enjoy either of them in my youth, and I am very glad that my children are not having to suffer as I did. So far as concerns expenditure on water distribution, we are spending, and have been spending, well over a billion pounds a year on that and expect to continue doing so.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the Minister said that he could not possibly answer my question. Has he not seen a copy of this Bill? Is he not aware that it is to be introduced as a Private Member's Bill in another place? Have the Government formed absolutely no view whatever? If they have, could he please tell us what it is?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the noble Lord will realise that we are traditionally neutral on Private Members' Bills but perhaps I can help him about a couple of aspects of the Bill, which I have seen only as a draft

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and not as a Bill. So far as concerns statutory targets for leakage reduction, we believe that they would operate against the public interest. They would force the consumer to pay for what it is properly the companies' business to pay for. As it is an extremely complex situation as regards where and when leakage is damaging and where and when it is worth repairing, we do not think that setting a system of centralised statutory targets would be the right way to go about it.

As regards water conservation, the noble Lord may be aware that this whole area is under active review by the Department of the Environment with a view to renewing regulations in about 1997.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, may I address the question to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House? The noble Lord said that the Government are traditionally neutral on Private Members' Bills. Is that supported by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I hope so, otherwise I shall know about it afterwards.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I was very discouraged by the answer that I received about leakages. I understood the noble Lord to say that because we have a low pressure system in Britain we can do nothing about leakages. In those circumstances, why is it that some water companies have a much lower level of leakages than others? Surely we can do something about the problem.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, yes, we can do a great deal about the problem. We have insisted that the water companies set targets and that they continue to improve their leakage records. Some areas where there are a lot of hills naturally find it more difficult because there are pockets of high pressure at the bottom and pockets of low pressure at the top, and combined with low-pressure-style water mains, that tends to produce high leakage rates. But the questions are soluble, at least within a degree.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is it not to be inferred from what my noble friend the Minister said that the Government would, if necessary in the public interest should the occasion arise, take such measures as might be appropriate?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, do we not always?

Head Lice: Remedial Advice

2.45 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their advice to parents who find their children have head lice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, we advise parents to treat their children as quickly as possible by using an appropriate lotion

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available from pharmacists through sale or prescription. Alternatively, parents may wish to comb their children's hair regularly with a fine tooth comb.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can she imagine the horror that I felt when I discovered that the lotions contain organophosphates, carbonates and pyrethroids; that it is recommended that the whole family is treated for head lice at the same time; and that there is no recommendation that pregnant women or young infants are not treated with the lotion? We know that, as regards all such products, the human embryo and young infants are the most susceptible to the poisons, which may cause not only the possibility of cancer but have subtle neurological effects and can cause severe behavioural problems in children.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, several lotions are available on the market and two of those contain no OPs at all. Indeed, malathion has such a low level degree of toxicity that we are advised by our expert committees that there is no danger in using it.

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