HC Deb 08 June 1944 vol 400 cc1602-7

Where the Minister is satisfied that the obligations imposed under Section 3 of this Act upon any local authority or joint board can be carried out most satisfactorily by the combining of two or more such bodies for that purpose the Minister shall, notwithstanding the provisions of any public, general, local or private Act, have power to make an order, on such terms and conditions as shall appear to him to be reasonable, providing for the combining of two or more local authorities or joint boards for the purpose of carrying out the obligations imposed by this Act.—[Mr. A. Walkden.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Alexander Walkden

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

I only do so in order to strengthen the Bill and help the Minister to have his wishes carried out and get the water schemes. There seems to be no sufficient obligatory power in the Bill to take the place of the words I suggest. There is a faint little Sub-section of Clause 5 of the Bill which says: (3) any two or more local authorities may combine for the purposes of giving such an undertaking as aforesaid. That is only permissive. All of us know that the smaller and more truly rural local authorities are, the less inclined they are, sometimes, to work together, and we wish the Minister to have power to require them to work together. Reference has been made earlier to-day to the awkwardness of some local authorities, and there should be somebody to call upon them to do their duty in the right way. Sometimes, they have good reasons for objecting. There may be a rural authority with two or three villages in one part of its area needing water, while that rural authority has not got the water to supply to them, though the next door rural authority has an abundance, but it is not their responsibility to supply those villages. These people say, "Why should we go to all this expense, find this money and take this responsibility when they could do it much better in the next village or the next rural area?" No one could put that position right except the Minister by coming down and saying, "You two must join hands to carry out the spot of work, which is very necessary." Obviously, in such a case, the council responsible under the Bill cannot do the work so well as the council next door, and by joining hands you will get the job done very much better. I hope the Minister will welcome this Clause and carry it out effectively when the Bill becomes law, and that it will enable him to realise his hopes and intentions better than would be possible if these words were not inserted.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

I wish to support my hon. Friend who has proposed this Clause, because there is something in the nature of a hiatus in the working of water undertakings. I have been connected for some years with a water undertaking which operates in both Nidderdale and Wharfedale in the West Riding of Yorkshire in supplying 26 local authorities, and which has invested several millions of pounds in order to promote this water scheme. The pipe line from the source of the water supply, in one case, travels 48 miles through rural districts which are short of water, while this authority, to which I am referring, has an abundance of water. I should like the Minister to have powers, which I think are given by this Clause, so that, in consultation with the authority which originally promoted the water scheme and which has an abundance of water now going to waste, the water should be available to these smaller villages which, obviously, for financial reasons, cannot afford to promote a water scheme of their own. Incidentally, if this were done though not on commercial lines, villages and townships, unable to promote their own supply, would be able to have water by tapping the pipe, and they would get a water supply at a reasonable rate. This authority to which I refer now has a rate-in-aid. There is a deficiency rate every year of 11d. in the £ owing to the deficiency in finance. This scheme would enable them to bring the water to the smaller villages, and I can envisage this greater authority amplifying and extending its beneficent powers, because it would enable them to raise more revenue, and perhaps get rid of its deficiency.

I hope that the Minister of Health will take a wider view of these powers and accept the Clause and so do a doubly good dead for the day in true Boy Scout fashion. I hope that the Minister is endowed not only with the water spirit, but with the best possible spirit. The Ministry of Health has for years had a sort of "stand-pat," marking-time tendency, and I hope that under the beneficent influence of my right hon. and learned Friend this Clause will be accepted. I hope that we shall have more water for the smaller rural areas, and that the poor water authority in the area where I was born will not be burdened with a continuation of the present rate of 11d. in the £ but will be able to clear off the deficiency. My final word is that the Minister should accept the Clause and then perhaps we shall all live happily ever after.

Dr. Haden Guest

I wish briefly to support this Clause. One of the joys of being Minister of Health must be that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is obtaining a very extensive and peculiar knowledge of the boundaries of local authorities. He will agree that they do not correspond to anything that has had to do with water supply or any other modern function. They have to do with Domesday Book, and, perhaps with the manorial system, but nothing whatever to do with the distribution of water supply. I suggest, therefore, the Minister should have this power in the background to enable him to make any necessary arrangements with regard to water supply and distribution irrespective of ancient boundaries which separate particular authorities. It would be a valuable additional power in his hands, and I hope, therefore, he will accept the Clause.

Mr. Sloan

I hope the Minister will see his way to accept the Clause, as without something of this nature, there would be a great deal lacking in the Bill. We all know of the difficulties with regard to water supply, and we hoped, when the Bill was introduced, it would have been on a much wider basis and would have provided for some control over water supplies. We find that nothing of the kind has resulted. The small water undertakings are still to remain in the hands of small people who will be expected to do their best on whatever grant or aid they can get under the Bill. That is the situation. In Scotland, for instance, there is plenty of water, but there are also areas where there is very little, and it is inconceivable that we should continue in that way, with one authority having an abundance of water and another very little water at all. I have in mind two authorities whose water pipes run along the same road from different catchment areas. There is a possibility there of the pipes being taped and if that were done there would be an ample water supply.

That is the sort of thing which the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland should visualise when producing a Bill of this character. The legislation is too permissive. There are many by-laws on the Statute Book of this country which have not been put into operation, and unless there is something more definite and tangible with regard to water I cannot see this Bill being a solution of the problem. We do not despise small improvements sometimes, but we suggest that, if this Clause were accepted, there would be a better prospect of the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland getting together and really doing something. The best watersheds should not be kept for the use of certain selected areas but for the use of the community. This sort of thing should be ended. Here is an opportunity to end it. If the Minister accepts this Clause, it will go a long way towards achieving that end.

Mr. Willink

I am glad that part of the White Paper is obviously much welcomed by those who have spoken on this new Clause, but may I remind the Committee that questions of compulsory amalgamation, whether of local authorities or of statutory undertakings, are not as simple as this new Clause would appear to suggest. The White Paper indicated very clearly that we realised that it would be mose desirable in many cases to require amalgamations of water undertakers, and, in such a case as that referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff), to require the giving of bulk supplies by one undertaker to another; but, in any examples of that kind, the Orders which we propose the responsible Minister should have power to make would necessarily be subject to review by Parliament, and I am sure that that would be right. My trouble about the new Clause is that it is rather tinkering at the big question of the proper organisation of water supply. We need to have a new legislative form for compulsory amalgamations and matters of that kind.

The Committee will observe that this Clause deals only with amalgamations of local authorities or joint boards. It does not deal with the major question of whether something should be done with regard to statutory undertakers. I am not sure whether the Committee have fully in mind all the powers there are at the moment before we tackle the important questions which still remain to be dealt with. So far as Public Health Act authorities are concerned, supposing there are three or four authorities and they are having difficulty over whether or not they should combine, and one of them takes the view that there ought to be some measure of combination, the Public Health Act gives power under Section 6 to set up a joint board of local authorities for, among other purposes, water supplies and if any one of a group of authorities applies to me for such an order I have power, after enquiry, to make one. But when the Public Health Act was considered it was decided that such an order should be a provisional order if any of the other authorities objected. The very wholesale procedure suggested by this new Clause for dealing with local authorities will not, I think, on careful consideration meet with approval, and I cannot recommend the Committee to accept the new Clause at this time and in this Bill. Of course, the Committee will realise that the very existence of the substantial sum provided by the Bill for grant purposes is in itself a very useful lever for persuading people to be reasonable.

Mr. A. Walkden

I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. This Bill is going to raise very high hopes in 34,000 parishes in this country, as he knows full well, which have no water supply, but he is not taking to himself enough power to carry out any sound policy or to carry it out economically. The water should be drawn from the nearest adjacent source and in the most economical way, and unless the Minister has more power with which to deal with any recalcitrant local people I do not see that you can get water to the homes of those who need it.

The Minister has made reference to a larger Measure he has in mind. I am afraid it is only in his mind and I do not know when it is corning out. He has uttered some dreadful words to-day in that regard. He said, "in the not too far distant future." It is awful to think, in any case, of "far distant." I know people who have been waiting for water supply since the far distant past and they think they are going to get it now. But the Minister says "in the not too far distant future." That is very depressing indeed. Unless he can give us something more definite than that, I hesitate very much about withdrawing this Clause.

Mr. Willink

I am sorry if I used those very unfortunate words.

Mr. A. Walkden

What do they mean anyhow?

Mr. Willink

They mean next Session.

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