HC Deb 08 June 1944 vol 400 cc1610-21

Where after inquiry the Minister is satisfied that any local authority or joint board is unable, by reason of the best available supply of water being privately owned or controlled, to carry out in the most economical way the obligations imposed upon it under section three of this Act, the Minister shall, not-withstanding the provisions of any public, general, local or private Act, have power to make an Order for the transfer of the rights of such supply of water to the ownership of the local authority or joint board concerned on such terms and conditions as shall appear to him to be reasonable.

Provided that the owner or owners of such water supply may appeal against such terms and conditions to an arbitrator appointed by the Lord Chief Justice.—[Mr. A. Walkden.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. A. Walkden

I beg to move. "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I have already shown that the ownership of water supplies is in private hands, and that that is unfortunate. People can only be supplied by getting those who own and control water to allow it to be used. But some people do not want anyone interfering with their water supplies; they wish to conserve and preserve the water for themselves. They do not want public authorities butting in and insisting on having a further supply. I take it that the Minister wants water to be obtained in the most economic way, and if there is any undue difficulty with these private people I hope he will take over their rights and use them in the public interest, while giving the undertakers fair compensation. The final sentence of my new Clause reads: Provided that the owner or owners of Such water supply may appeal against such terms and conditions to an arbitrator appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. I hope that by the time the Minister comes to deal with this matter in his larger Bill he will be more reasonable than he has been to-day. If people are not satisfied with his decision I do not think he would like to appoint an arbitrator himself. I have suggested that the Lord Chief Justice should do so, which, I think, would be agreeable to private owners who have grievances. This Clause is intended to give power to the Minister to do the job he wants to do, and I press it on him for his consideration. In the greatest literary work of the human race it states that a cup of water is held as a token of the right-mindedness of the people who need it. There are people who would deny a little one a cup of water, and I want the Minister to have power to deal with such people in the proper manner.

Mr. Willink

I should like to remind the Committee of one sentence in the White Paper, at the foot of page 13, which says: It is proposed that the Minister should be empowered by order to authorise undertakers to take water compulsorily. It is quite clear that that power will have to be carefully defined by Parliament, and that the form of the order will need very careful consideration. I am sorry to have to say for the third or fourth time to my hon. Friend—because I know how keen he is about these matters—that this is another example of trying to bring into this limited Bill a provision which needs the full consideration which it will get in relation to the bigger proposals when the time comes for them to be made. If the Committee will look carefully at the Clause they will feel that I cannot accept it, because it is very wide and would empower me, subject to control by an arbitrator, to make orders going right through the provisions of any public general, local or private Act. We cannot contemplate using this small Bill for such powers nor, indeed, do I think the Committee would ever contemplate giving to a Minister such control after such short consideration.

Sir Robert Tasker (Holborn)

I would like to give a case from my own experience, where a local authority informed an owner that he would have to put in one and three-quarters miles of pipe for a water supply to some cottages. He received only 1s. 9d. per week, per cottage, and warned the authority that as this was his only income, he would have to pull the cottages down if they enforced their request. That is what happened. The hon. Member's new Clause is another step which seeks to introduce National Socialism in the direction of a compulsory supply of water.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Mr. Lewis (Colchester)

I do not think the Minister has any reason to be dissatisfied with the reception that the Bill has had. It is true that on the Second Reading one or two rather violently worded speeches, highly critical of the Bill, were made, notably those of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Davies) and the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) but I noticed, as I have noticed before with those two hon. Members, that their bark is a great deal worse than their bite and that they did not show much enthusiasm when the time came for pressing the matter to a Division. I think they realised that the House, as a whole, feels that this is a useful and a timely Measure and that it will enable and encourage the preparation of schemes for the supply of water to people who have not had it in the past and who feel the need for it very greatly. I think my right hon. and learned Friend has been wise not to claim more for it than it can do. There was one passage in his speech on the Second Reading which, taken by itself, without qualification, might lead to disappointment in the future. He said: What we wish and hope is that schemes shall be as far forward as possible towards the stage of letting contracts after the end of the war in Europe."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1944; Vol. 400, c. 367.] That sentence, taken by iself, might, I think, fairly be read by some people to mean that the Minister hopes that directly the war in Europe is over some, at any rate, of these schemes might be ready and work might be started upon them immediately. I cannot believe that that is what he really meant because it seems to me impossible that that should happen immediately the war in Europe ends. Labour will be urgently required for other purposes which, it seems to me, must of necessity take priority over these schemes—such matters, for example, as housing. Therefore, I do not see how it would be possible to start work on any schemes under the Bill for some considerable time after the cessation of hostilities. If, for example, I said a year, I should think that would be a very conservative estimate. Perhaps the Minister will deal with the point, because it would be a pity if people were led to hope that something is going to happen which cannot happen. At the same time it is obviously desirable that these schemes should be developed and the details settled so that, as soon as may be practicable, as soon as labour and materials can be spared, they may be put into operation.

With regard to the purpose behind the Bill, the hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) on the Second Reading expressed a very strong hope that we might see, after the war, a revival of country life. That is a view with which I have the greatest possible sympathy. We want to do all we can to provide that people living in small communities may live as full a life as those in great towns. For too long the cities have been pampered and the villages neglected. Though it is true that the scope of the Bill is very limited, I think it offers something which is of very real value and which is greatly needed in the districts which will be affected. I hope very much that the local authorities concerned will make full use of the opportunities provided and, if they do, the time will certainly come when very many people will bless the Minister for having promoted the Bill.

Mr. A. Walkden

Deeply disappointed as I am, Hope springs eternal in the human breast, and I shall look forward next Session to the greater Bill which the Minister has been kind enough to promise us. Meantime, I should like to congratulate him on having made a start. It is quite a little one but he has made a beginning early in his Ministerial life and has got this dear little Bill through. I know that he is very fond of it and that his Parliamentary Secretary is even more fond of it. But I am not quite so satisfied. Now that the Minister of Agriculture is here, I shall have to ask him to augment the operation of this little Bill with his administrative water-cart, and take water where these pipes will not go, and perhaps relieve the anxiety of the hon. Member opposite who has been pleading so strongly in the Minister's absence for distant farm houses. The Minister of Health as I say has made a start with this great problem, but we must look forward to the greater Bill, which will appear in due course, and I hope then that he will have embraced the suggestions I have put forward and will welcome any power which enables him to carve right through the vested interests which stand in the way of anything that you want to do in this dear old country. That was my object in moving the Amendments that I have moved. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) told us 30 or 40 years ago that the obstacle to doing anything in this country, is the immediate uprising of vested interests which want to stop you. I have made a few suggestions which will enable the Minister to cut through such obstacles. My word "notwithstanding" might be borne in mind—notwithstanding any Acts that may exist to the contrary, he must have power to carry out everything that he feels, and the House feels, should be done in connection with this vital public service. I support the Third Reading and congratulate the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary on the rapid progress they have made.

Mr. Sexton (Barnard Castle)

I should like to say a few words in welcoming the Bill. My right to speak is that I represent a constituency extending over 300 square miles, and in it there are innumerable hamlets and villages. Some of them come within the category of having no piped water supply. That is not unusual in rural districts and in some we have to pay dearly for it. They have been neglected in other respects than piped water—neglected in health and education and many other things. The ordinary amenities of the towns are the luxuries of the rural districts. One of the tragedies is that from some of these mountainous and hilly rural districts a pure water supply is given to towns miles away. Down our valleys run great pipes carrying the water from the uplands to the congested areas and passing the very doorsteps of the villages and hamlets, yet in many cases they are not supplied with piped water. We not only produce good water in the rural districts, but we produce good men and women, and they deserve something better than they have had in the past. Their children, too, deserve something better than they have had in the past. We all deplore the depopulation of the rural districts and the decline in agriculture, but both these are partly due to the neglect of the rural districts by the authorities concerned. If this Bill, small as it is, does something to relieve the necessities of these worthy people, it will do much. I say to the Government "Get on with it" and to the local authorities, "Administer it," because "Jack and Jill" are about tired of going "up the bill, to fetch a pail of water."

Mr. Henderson Stewart

There is no doubt that this Bill is a considerable step forward in the direction we all desire to go. Despite the criticism that was levelled against it on Second Reading, it remains true that, taken as a whole, it is a substantial advance, and the Government deserve congratulations upon it. It is all the more regrettable that this Bill, which carries on its back the names of the Minister of Agriculture and his Parliamentary Secretary and has in its Title "Rural Water Supplies," should deliberately exclude agricultural buildings from receiving water. The Minister of Agriculture him- self told us not long ago that no fewer than 220,000 farm buildings in England and Wales were without piped water supplies. If Scotland is added, the figure reaches 250,000. In view of that staggering fact it is deplorable that this Bill does not provide these essential services in the countryside.

Mr. Richards

I join with my colleague the hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) in congratulating the Minister on this Bill. He has reiterated the fact that it is a small Bill, but I assume that it is a promise and that we shall get by and by the greater Bill to which we are looking forward. I am concerned with the thought that a great deal of recent legislation passing through this House—and I am afraid this Bill must be counted among them—will really not bear the fruits that we anticipate, for the simple reason that the amount of Government money involved is not sufficient to induce authorities concerned to carry them out. We have had two Bills lately, and I have been making some investigations as to the cost of carrying them out in one of the rural counties of Wales. If the Education Bill is implemented in anything like the way it ought to be, it will involve a cost of over £500,000. The county is involved in a water scheme that will cost another £500,000, and it has introduced a Bill into the House recently. Thus a small county, where a penny rate produces between £500 and £600, will be immediately burdened, as the result of two Bills, with an expenditure of £1,000,000. The result will be that they will not attempt to put a Bill of this kind into operation.

I speak with some knowledge of the problems with which rural district councils are faced. Their rateable value is notoriously low and the difficulties of getting water in the rural hamlets are very considerable. I know one rural district council with 19 parishes huddled up amongst the mountains, and there will be the greatest difficulty in getting anything like an adequate water supply to them. What they will get is a small pipe carrying drinking water through the villages, and it will be impossible, with a small supply of that kind, to get the sewerage schemes that the people ought to have. We really must have the survey about which the Minister is talking. There is plenty of water in all parts of Wales, very often too much. We must have an adequate scheme that will combine several villages and authorities. The scheme must be adequate if we are to have the sewerage system that has been outlined to-day.

Another thing that is particularly galling in Wales is that it contains some of the largest reservoirs which are entirely reserved for big towns in England. A pipe line pases quite near my home on the way to Liverpool 75 miles away, yet none of the villages are allowed to take water from this pipe. A national scheme should be evolved so that villages on the route of the pipe should not be deprived of water. I do not want to be too critical on the occasion of the first triumph of the Minister of Health. I congratulate him sincerely, but I see in this Bill and in others that we are passing a promise that will not in many cases inevitably be fulfilled in the way that it ought to be. There will be a great element of disappointment. Rural district councils, which ire the poorest of the poor, which have not the facilities or the surveyors or the departments for carrying out work of this kind, will, for the £15,000,000 that they get from the Government, have to find something like £19,000,000 if this scheme is to work.

Mr. Loftus

I join in the congratulations offered to the Minister. I regard the Bill as a small instalment of good things to come. I would, however, refer to what was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. He comes from the mountainous country of North Wales, which has much water, while I come from the fiat lands of East Anglia where we are very short indeed of water. The trouble will be the limited finances available from the Treasury and from the rural district councils, coupled with the shortness of materials and labour. The difficulty will therefore be to get results on any substantial scale. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we should use those limited resources to produce the greatest possible benefit. In East Anglia we have innumerable aerodromes fitted up with magnificent water supplies, and the cheapest way to get water for many villages in our part of the world, is to connect up with those aerodrome supplies, which are magnificent and modern. Where that can be done, we can make a little money and a little labour and material go a very long way. I again congratulate the Minister on the passage of this useful Measure.

Mr. Sloan

The Minister is in danger of being damned with faint praise. Nearly every Member has commenced his speech by praising, and has ended by seriously criticising, the Bill. I do not want to be thought out of step, so I will add my congratulations to the Minister—but, like other hon. Members, I have a few words of criticism. I think the Bill, frankly, is totally inadequate to meet the circumstances. People who have any knowledge whatever of this matter recognise that this small Bill will only go a very short way towards improving the position. Scotland gets a rather better share of the dough; we get £6,250,000, but that money will not anything like meet the situation in Scotland. It would not lave met it before the war, and the position is a great deal worse now, because of the increased cost of water and sewerage undertakings.

We must not forget that this is a double-barreled Bill; it deals not only with water but with sewerage, and in most areas the latter will be the most expensive item. It is more expensive to treat sewerage than it is to bring in water. £6,250,000 looks a lot of money, but there is a lot to be done with it, because of the extent of Scotland. Scotland is not a very small country. It is not a principality, like Wales, it is a nation, and rather an extensive one. It is not very deeply populated. It has less than 5,000,000 people, but the spread of the population makes for difficult problems. A pamphlet recently issued by the National Labour Party on the question of population says that the population of Glasgow is more than 1,000,000, while Edinburgh has 440,000; Dundee, 175,000 and Aberdeen 167,000. Other towns together take considerably less than 100,000. The rest of the population of Scotland is spread over the rural areas. In a situation like that, it is difficult to supply the ordinary amenities of life.

I should have thought the first thing that the Ministers responsible would have done would have been to take a broad view of the situation. The Secretary of State for Scotland ought to have taken a broad view of the situation in Scotland, where we have so many small undertak- ings, and every small burgh with a water undertaking thinks it has the best that the world can produce. It is a danger to the community to allow small undertakings to supply water, because they have not the technical experience and cannot employ the staff. Water is something that people drink every day and very many times during the day. It goes into their bodies. We want our beer to be purer. We employ technical staffs to examine the milk. The small burgh that has not the proper technical knowledge to examine and analyse its water periodically is not in a position to supply water to a community. Water can only be supplied properly upon a large scale.

Mr. Loftus

Surely the small water undertaking can send its water somewhere else to be analysed?

Mr. Sloan

No doubt they send it periodically, but "periodically" should mean weekly at any rate. In my water undertaking the water content is analysed every week. To do the thing properly in Scotland it is necessary to operate on a vast scale. Why all these little undertaking should continue to have full control of their little duck-ponds has always been difficult for me to understand. I am not speaking with any jealousy towards the burghs. I come from a county that has resolved all these matters for itself. In 1933 or 1944 we produced a Water Bill for the purpose of making Ayrshire one water undertaking, which was, of course, turned down. All the burghs amalgamated to oppose the scheme. The result was that we were compelled to do the job ourselves, which we did. We supply water to villages which in no circumstances would have been able to do it themselves. The County Council have undertaken the job. They have a uniform rate, and the deficiency is spread over the public health rate.

That is one way of doing it. But surely it ought not to be left to county councils to decide whether or not they will do this, when there is the House of Commons here and the opportunity of taking them by the scruff of the neck and throwing them into schemes, and compelling them to do the things in a proper manner. Therefore, while I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the £6,250,000 we have been able to extract I hope that in this larger Measure some pains will be taken, some foresight will be shown, and that when it comes along we will be able to visualise a scheme which will, as far as Scotland is concerned, see to it that every house, every farmhouse, every farm steading, which is more important, will be able to secure a definite water supply, to be able to carry on in Scotland what is a very important industry, namely, dairy farming.

Mr. Willink

At this hour there is little I can usefully add, but there are just a few sentences I would like to say. I would like on this, the first occasion I have dealt from this bench with the Committee stage of a Bill, to thank the House—Members on all sides—for the help they have given me and for the kindly way they have dealt with the Bill, which everyone has described as "little." I should like also to record my appreciation of the help given me by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and those who have helped me both from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Office. My hon. Friend the Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) has taken a great part in the various stages of this Bill. I believe he, like me, has now come to regard it as a "dear little Bill"; I believe we have the same mind on that, though I have a special feeling because it is my first-born.

An interesting balance of observations has been made in the course of the speeches made by hon. Members on the Third Reading. I quite agree with those who wish to avoid a "great element of disappointment," which I think was the phrase used, at the fact that the benefits of this Bill are not immediate. It is perfectly true that if any of us gave the impression to our friends in the country that this Bill, or anything else, could bring new water supplies and new sewerage to the country this year or, to a large extent, next year, they would be deceiving people and would be leading to the disappointment referred to. On the other hand I am convinced that those who suggest that this Bill in the course of its operation will go only a very short way—that it is not only little but puny—are saying something which is equally wrong, because, judging by all the information I have, I am satisfied that its provisions, together with further provisions we hope to bring into legislative form within 12 months or a period of that order, can in five or six or seven years hence bring enormous benefits to our countryside.

If I may make this final observation, there is nothing which has given me greater satisfaction in connection with this Bill than the welcome it has received from the rural district councils themselves. The rural district councils are sometimes spoken of, in my view, with inadequate appreciation and respect. They will have great obligations in our reconstruction period, not only in the sphere of water supply but also in what one hon. Member at least has referred to to-day as the primary matter of housing. It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that the first Bill I have introduced is one so welcomed by the local authorities who, in the main, will be responsible for administering the work with which it is concerned—the rural district councils of England and Wales and, no doubt, also the corresponding councils in Scotland.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.