HC Deb 21 December 1972 vol 848 cc1734-41

11.28 p.m.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I beg to move, That the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st November, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hope that hon. Members will leave the Chamber quietly.

Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House at this stage to say that I think that it would be acceptable to discuss the two Northern Ireland orders together. The second order is the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I shall attempt to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although these are naturally important matters and they cover wide matters of policy, nevertheless, particularly as they could be said to be non-contentious, I should not be discourteous to the House if I dealt with them fairly shortly. If I am allowed to do so, I shall do my best to answer questions later.

The draft Water and Sewerage Services Order is another in the series arising from the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland and it will make the Ministry of Development directly responsible for the provision of water and sewerage services throughout Northern Ireland. It also consolidates and revises the law on the provision of services.

There are 79 local authorities which have responsibility for these services in Northern Ireland. They vary widely in size and this fragmentation of responsibility, it is widely agreed, has been a major obstacle to the efficient and economic provision of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland. Therefore, if the House approves the order, the Ministry of Development will be responsible for four major aspects for water management—water conservation, pollution, control, and provision of water and of sewerage services. The House will recognise the close parallel with the Government proposals to create regional water authorities in England and Wales.

Part II of the order places on the Ministry of Development the responsibility to provide water and sewerage services. Article 5 requires the Ministry to consult with the new district councils. Article 6 extends the role of the Northern Ireland Water Council to advising the Ministry on the exercise of its functions for water and sewerage services. Articles 7 and 8 and Schedules 1 and 2 deal with appeals, objections and hearings under this order and under the Water Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. They provide for the appointment by the Governor of Northern Ireland of a new body, the Northern Ireland Water Appeals Commission.

The important Article 8 makes it clear that the final decisions on these matters remain with the Government, as is the case in Great Britain.

Since, as is the case here, legislation dates from a long time ago, the opportunity has been taken to consolidate. Part III of the order deals with the acquisition of land and waiter rights and with the execution of works. Part IV sets out the rights and duties of owners and occupiers. Part V introduces, for the first time in Northern Ireland, comprehensive controls over the discharge of trade effluents to public sewers and sewage disposal works. These provisions are based on current legislation in Great Britain.

In 1945, only 55 per cent. of households in Northern Ireland had a piped water supply and an even smaller percentage were connected to a public sewerage system. Today, over 90 per cent. of the population live in property with a piped water supply and between 85 and 90 per cent. in property connected to the public sewers.

This progress has been achieved at the cost of some £80 million on new capital works since 1945. About half of this money has been in the form of Government grants to local authorities. I would pay a warm tribute to the work which the existing local water and sewerage authorities have done over the years in Northern Ireland.

However, we have now the opportunity to reorganise services on a regional basis as part of a completely new structure for local and central services in Northern Ireland, and it is in that spirit that I am moving this order.

It has already been indicated that it would be convenient to, and it was accepted that we should, also now deal with the draft Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order which also stems from the reorganisation of local government. It has been decided that in this case the Ministry of Agriculture, the existing drainage authority for rivers, major and minor, should take over the functions now exercised by local authorities in relation to urban water courses. Accordingly the principal purpose of this order is to make the necessary changes to the existing drainage legislative code, and once again, as with its predecessor, opportunity has been taken for consolidation.

It is true that the review body, commonly known as the Macrory Report, recommended that urban drainage should be the responsibility of the new local district councils, but the new councils will have neither the professional staff nor the finances to undertake such works. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland and, for all I know, elsewhere, the distinction between urban watercourses and rural watercourses is not always as clear and obvious as one might wish, and therefore this order transfers complete responsibility for urban drainage to the Ministry of Agriculture and abolishes the distinction between urban and rural watercourses.

Even at a late hour I ought to draw attention to Article 8, which is new. It is of particular importance in towns and cities. It permits the Ministry of Agriculture to carry out emergency works to all types of watercourses. The situation at present is that neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the local authorities have authority to undertake emergency works when there is a threat of flooding without going through a very lengthy procedure, and this is of particular concern in urban areas where homes and industrial premises can be affected by flooding. Therefore, this order provides additional safeguards to deal quickly with flooding both to urban property and farmland.

A further change is necessitated by the reorganisation of local government, and this concerns the constitution of the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland. The House will see the details set out in Schedule 1.

Finally, I wish to draw attention to the new provisions which concern navigation on Lough Erne and its tributaries. This is found in Schedule 7. The House will know that the lough is situated in County Fermanagh, covering some 58 square miles. There is at present a public right of navigation on the lough, but maintenance of the navigation is not the responsibility of any public body. However, various navigation works have been undertaken by the Fermanagh County Council under tourist development schemes with the actual work being carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture as agents for the county council. Paragraph 12 of Schedule 7 makes the Ministry of Agriculture solely responsible for navigation works on Upper and Lower Lough Erne, the River Erne, and the tributary rivers, including the dredging and maintenance of channels and the provision and maintenance of navigation aids.

Paragraph 13 empowers the Ministry to make bye-laws to regulate the use of the loughs and their tributaries, and these regulations may cover, for example, the size of the boat and the nature of safety equipment which the boat must carry. In the exercise of this responsibility there will be close consultation by the Ministry with the relevant district councils, other local interests and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. I hope it will be felt that these provisions together ensure that future tourist development is managed for the benefit of both local and tourist interests, and safe navigation is provided to meet the increased number of craft.

I hope in respect of the second order, therefore, that I have explained the main provisions, and that I have been able to show that the other amendments to existing legislation are of a minor or consequential nature and that the overall purpose is to ensure that the drainage work throughout Northern Ireland is carried out under the overall authority of the Ministry of Agriculture.

I commend both orders to the House.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

The Minister has explained the main provisions of the orders succinctly, and we do not complain about not having a long debate. But I should draw attention to the fact that they are the 25th and 26th pieces of legislation to come before the House under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. In addition, more than a dozen orders have gone through under the negative procedure. As they are statutory instruments it is not possible to amend them. We are therefore having legislation by decree, which is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the issues concerned. It tends to give too much power to civil servants, because the legislation they draft is not debated in the House.

The debate in another place on the Water and Sewerage Services Order took exactly three minutes. This reminds us of the way in which Stormont operated on a number of occasions, meeting in the afternoon and finishing before teatime. In view of some of the earlier debates today, it cannot be said that this House operates in that way, and we do not want it to do so.

The sooner we can have legislation in a proper form, preferably dealt with in Northern Ireland, where it can be dealt with much more democratically, the better it will be for both Northern Ireland and this House. Hardly a day passes without our hearing a statement on Northern Ireland or dealing with a statutory instrument affecting it. The number of such statements and statutory instruments is increasing, because of the very nature of many of the issues.

The proposals on water and sewerage parallel the proposed reorganisation of water and sewerage services for England and Wales. What we might call the geographical approach has been supported by the Central Advisory Water Committee, the Royal Commission on the Environment and the Labour Party's own Working Party on sewage disposal. Therefore, we are naturally not opposed to the order. We want to see complete public ownership of the water supply, because that is necessary.

The details are left to be covered by regulations. Therefore it is an open question whether domestic consumers in Northern Ireland will be metered. I must express the opposition of my side of the House to any such idea. It would be very expensive administratively. The Department of the Environment estimates that installation would cost about £500 million in England and Wales, and there would be an annual cost of about £15 million for repair and replacement. I should therefore like an assurance from the Minister that metering is not contemplated.

I note the points made on Article 5. Article 6 does not make clear the size of the council which will be elected but merely states that it shall not exceed 15. It does not make clear what will be the composition of the council or what interests will be represented. If the Minister is not able to give an immediate reply perhaps he will consider the points and write to me.

The drainage order has been debated in another place and Lord Garnsworthy made an excellent speech raising many detailed points. Because of the relationship of Northern Ireland to the Republic there is bound to be some form of cooperation. This vital matter is raised in Article 30.

Co-operation with the Republic, whether over tourism, economic development or drainage, can do nothing but good. We all hope that there will be an easier political atmosphere which will assist this. Lord Windlesham spoke of the opportunities for co-operation with the Republic. We support such developments. Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann are not included in the order. Can we expect any legislation covering these important water supply and drainage areas?

The Opposition do not see any reason why these orders should not be passed. It might seem odd that on the day after five brutal murders took place in a Londonderry public house we should be discussing drainage and sewerage in Northern Ireland. It seems far removed from the terrible reality. We support any measure which leads to political normalisation in the Six Counties. Only urgent political measures by the Government can help. The recent killings are fresh in our memories. We have no alternative but to pursue the issues in Northern Ireland in a logical and commonsense manner—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. The hon. Member is going beyond the orders.

Mr. Orme

I understand that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not contradict your ruling. I am merely saying in conclusion that it would be idiotic for us to discuss the orders in isolation from the realities in Northern Ireland. The orders are related to the political realities in that war-torn Province. On that basis we welcome the orders, but at the same time press the Government on the major political solutions which we hope they will put forward in the near future.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Perhaps I may, without discourtesy to the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) deal with the four perfectly proper and penetrating technical questions he has asked me. He will forgive me if I do not follow him into the wider matters. As one who will be spending the Christmas break in Northern Ireland, I am not unaware of the broader questions, on which there is considerable agreement on both sides of the House.

On the order relating to water, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of metering. There is no present intention to introduce metering for domestic consumers, at any rate not in the foreseeable future.

The council was created under the 1972 Act to advise the Ministries of Agriculture and Development. The intention is that the 15 members of the council should reflect the many interests concerned in the water industry—to name a few, agriculture, fisheries, public health, tourism and recreation— and include locally elected representatives of the general public. The hon. Gentleman will know the timetable.

On the order relating to drainage, the hon. Gentleman mentioned Article 30. He will recall that, although necessarily my remarks were short, I made reference to Lough Erne, where there is cooperation. In the past there has been close co-operation and a cordial relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and the Board of Public Works in the Republic of Ireland, which is responsible for drainage south of the border. Several rivers flow across the border, and the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that reciprocal arrangements are essential. It is in these practical matters that one would like to see increasing co-operation between the two parts of Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman will know that only on 22nd November was the Lough Neagh working group's report presented to the Government. The group was asked to advise on how the water resources of Lough Neagh and the lower river basin could be managed to the best advantage of Northern Ireland. That report is now a matter for study by the Ministries concerned. A copy of the report has been placed in the Library. As the report has so recently been presented, it is not unreasonable to allow opportunity for further study.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st November, be approved.

Resolved, That the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved.—[Mr. van Straubenzee]