HC Deb 24 July 1973 vol 860 cc1510-7

8.8 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Thomas)

I beg to move,

That the Welsh National Water Development Authority (Establishment and Constitution) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 19th July, be approved.

Section 2 of the Water Act 1973 provides for the establishment of the Welsh National Water Development Authority to carry out the functions conferred upon it by Part II of the Act.

Section 2(4) of the Act provides that the Welsh Authority shall be established by order, and Section 3(10) that the constitution of the Welsh Authority shall be prescribed in that order, which shall be laid in draft before, and approved by resolution of, each House. That section also requires me to lay the draft of the order not later than one month after the passing of the Act.

As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, the Water Act 1973 received Royal Assent on 18th July, and the draft of the order was laid on 19th July.

The Welsh Authority has a great deal of preparatory work to do before assuming responsibility for its functions on 1st April 1974. I have therefore provided that it shall come into existence on 6th August 1973. Its constitution is prescribed in Article 4 of the draft order. This is an interim constitution. The constitution will not be finally determined until the Government have given full consideration to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Constitution.

Accordingly I have provided in Article 4(1) that the constitution specified shall have effect only until 31st May 1977. Before that date a further draft order prescribing a substantive constitution will be laid.

During the passage of the Bill I undertook, in formulating an interim constitution, to have regard to Parliament's decisions about the constitution of the English regional water authorities. In particular I undertook to provide for a majority of local authority membership if this was so decided for the regional water authorities. The Act provides that there shall be such a majority.

This undertaking is fulfilled by the provisions of Article 4(1). I have borne in mind the feelings expressed during debate that it should be a workable majority, and the draft order provides this.

Article 4(1) also requires that 1 shall appoint the chairman of the authority and that there shall be 34 other members. As I have already told the House, it is my intention to appoint Lord Brecon as chairman. His wide experience will be a great asset to the authority. Of the 34 members, 20 will be appointed by local authorities and 14 by Ministers

I am sure that with the constitution provided the Welsh authority will be able to carry out, with proper regard to all the interests concerned, the efficient management of water in Wales. Therefore, I ask the House to approve that the order as drafted be made.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I want, first, to register a very strong protest at the fact that we are discussing this order in reference to an Act that is not yet in print and available for the House. The Government have been in such a stampeding hurry in this matter that we had to try to remember the amendments proposed in another place which have a bearing on the order.

I want, secondly, to register a protest at the fact that a major order of this sort, in which all Wales is deeply interested, has been brought forward at such a stage in the business of the House. There ought to have been opportunity for a full day's debate on this major topic which causes considerable feeling throughout the Principality.

We do not like the order. It will not last for long. The order undermines local government in the Principality. It takes away responsibilities from elected local government and hands them over to 14 people nominated by Ministers and another 18 from Wales in local government and four from outside.

Responsibility for sewerage and water has been undertaken for a long period in the Principality by our local authorities. It is a very sad commentary on the Government's attitude to local government that at a time when we are creating larger local government units the Government seek to take away from local government powers that it has hitherto carried out very effectively.

This order is another contribution by the Government to the inflation that is persecuting our country at present. Not content with forcing up the cost of our food and our homes, now even the water that we drink is to cost more for the Welsh people. Already the people of Montgomeryshire, according to a report in the Western Mail, have been told that they can look forward to a sharp increase in the cost of their water supply. This order creates a bureaucracy that will be highly expensive for the people of Wales.

On an earlier occasion the Minister for Local Government and Development told us that the Government sought not to bind the authorities with unnecessary statutory obligations but merely to lay down general guide lines and general rules"— [OFFICIAL REPORT. 2nd May 1973, Vol. 855. c. 1261.] The Secretary of State will have no other control over the price of the water that this national board can charge. On 2nd May the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said The cost of water, even if it were to be charged by volume, is infinitesimally small compared with the cost of heating it before it is used or buying and running a washing machine in which it is processed.—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 2nd May 1973. Vol. 855, c. 1279.] But the people of Wales have only to wait. The cost of our water will escalate rapidly.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to give us an estimate of what this order will cost the people of Wales in, first, the bureaucratic machinery that he is setting up and, secondly, the replacement of voluntary service by the payment that has to be made. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the likely increase when the Welsh National Water Development Authority goes ahead with the metering of water supplies in Wales? Am I right in assuming that under the order the Secretary of State is giving the all-clear to the authority to introduce a meter charge at a time to suit itself? Is he telling the families in Wales that they will have to pay much more through a metering system and that the authority will decide when that will be introduced and how much it shall charge?

Water charges in Wales today fall on the water rate. People are able to talk to their elected representatives who serve on the joint water boards. But this monstrosity which the Secretary of State is creating is beyond the reach of the people. We shall have bureaucrats able to impose charges on people without the people being able to shift them if they dislike them or feel that they are not conducting their business properly.

Hitherto, water, like the air we breathe. has been treated differently from any other commodity. Under this order the Secretary of State reverses everything that has gone before.

In Committee it was decided that the chairman of the water authority should be elected by his fellow members. The Government were agitated about that. They brought the matter to the Floor of the House. Right hon. and hon. Members who had not heard a word of the argument trooped through the Lobbies to reverse the decision and to ensure that the chairman should be a creature of the Secretary of State, his nominee, paid by him—I beg his pardon—paid by the people of Wales. who have to pay through their charges for water, but answerable to the Secretary of State.

We wondered on this side why the Government were so fiercely resisting the right of their own board to appoint its own chairman. There was obviously good reason why the Government could not trust the board to choose a responsible person, and they reversed the decision. Now we know why the Government were so agitated.

The Secretary of State paid high tribute to his noble Friend Lord Brecon. The Secretary of State has resolved to give this lucrative appointment to a safe place-man. No one would be less likely to put up a fight for Welsh interests against the Secretary of State than his noble Friend the former Minister for Welsh Affairs. There will be no tough resistance from that quarter. He has top job. All the main influence will be in the hands of Lord Brecon who is known to be a loyal and dedicated supporter of the Government and the Conservative Party.

The order, if it is approved, will ensure that the Secretary of State will always be able to rely on getting his own way so far as the Water Authority in Wales is concerned. The Welsh National Water Development Authority will be no more than a ventriloquist's doll. It should be renamed. It should not be called the Welsh National Water Development Authority. It ought to be called the Welsh Office Water Authority, for the Secretary of State might as well have taken the chair himself as appoint a former Minister who everyone knows is entirely loyal to the Conservative Party. In any case this is not a Welsh National Water Development Authority. It is a hybrid authority, for Cheshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire are all members of it. This makes a nonsense of the title.

Does the Secretary of State realise that in defining, in the order, the area which the water authority will cover he is cutting out a very important part of the water supplying areas of Wales? Mid-Wales, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, produces a major proportion of our water, but I gather that as it is not included in the order, as far as I can see, as being the responsibility of the Welsh national authority, it comes under the Severn Authority, and will be controlled from Lincolnshire. The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that there is deep feeling about this.

The Secretary of State has set about this in the wrong way. We do not like the idea of these bureaucrats nominated by the Minister, these faceless creatures whom the Welsh people will be unable to move, even if they do not like them.

As the Government are able to get their own way and to establish this authority, I would have thought that the Secretary of State would lean over backwards to ensure that the authority has a good beginning. But it cannot have a good beginning with the way he has set about it. He referred to the Kilbrandon Commission, which we used to call the Crowther Commission until the unfortunate early death of Lord Crowther. No matter what that Commission reports, the Oppositon are determined to establish an elected council for Wales. Water will be one of the responsibilites of that elected council, so we shall restore to the Welsh people the right to control one of the major resources with which the Almighty has blessed that country.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Peter Thomas

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me one or two questions and made one or two points which I should try to answer.

First, I appreciate that it is inconvenient, when an Act of Parliament is referred to in an order, if that Act is not in print. I am happy to say, however, knowing the right hon. Gentleman's interest in this subject, that he was well versed in the Bill which came out of the Committee, and all the relevant sections of the Act which I referred to are the same as they were in the Bill as amended by the Committee, and the Bill is in the Vote Office.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that one was stampeding this order through in a hurry. I agree that the Welsh Water Authority will not assume responsibility for its functions before 1st April 1974, but it will need to undertake a great deal of preparatory work as a matter of some urgency. For instance, it will need to get on with the important task of appointing its chief officers. I am sure that it would not be the wish that we should lag behind the regional water authorities in England. That is why it is provided in Article I of the order that the authority shall come into operation on 6th August.

Mr. George Thomas

Since it is to come into operation within a forthnight the right hon. and learned Gentleman has, clearly, appointed the people. He knows the names of those who will serve. I realise that they have received letters from him. That is common knowledge in Wales. Will he be kind enough to tell the House the people whom he has appointed to start their duties on 6th August? Or is he waiting till the House goes down for the recess before he announces the names?

Mr. Peter Thomas

It surprises me that this is common knowledge in Wales because, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, I have written no letters asking anyone. The right hon. Gentleman will see that by Article 4(1) of the order there will be 34 members apart from the chairman. Of those, 20 will be appointed by the local authorities: 14 will be appointed by Ministers, 10 by me and four jointly by me and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Therefore, there will be 20 local authority members and 14 members appointed by Ministers.

I have asked the local authorities to send in their nominations. Some of them have, but many have not yet.

I have not written, neither has my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture jointly with me, to any nominated members.

I shall appoint 10 members who appear to me to have had experience of or shown capacity in some matter relevant to the functions of water authorities. I would hope to include people with experience in manufacturing industry, management and finance, labour relations, recreation and amenity, applied science, and consumer affairs. To get the right people for the job I have asked various bodies, including the TUC and CBI, to suggest to me the names of people they would consider to be suitable, and I have no doubt from the way they have responded—this is probably where the confusion lies, since they have responded to my request that I shall be able to appoint people who can make a very useful contribution to the management of water in Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and I acting jointly will appoint four members who appear to us to have had experience of and shown capacity in agriculture, land drainage, or fisheries.

I cannot understand why the right hon. Gentleman referred to this as bureaucratic machinery when there is a working majority of local authority representatives, which was what in committee was asked for and which I promised I would have in Wales in order to follow the regional water authorities in England.

As to the election of the chairman I think I would be out of order if I were to engage in either condoning or criticising, as the right hon. Gentleman did, the provisions of the parent Act out of which this order comes. All I can say is that the right hon. Gentleman is about the only person in Wales who has ever suggested that Lord Brecon who will be appointed chairman is other than admirable for the job. When I announced my intention to appoint him the announcement received widespread acclamation throughout Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned metering. He knows that the authority when it is set up, together with the regional water authorities for England, has the discretionary power to introduce metering. Whether it can be democratically introduced depends on the views of the majority of the local authority members on the authority. I am sure that with the constitution provided in this order the Welsh authority established by it will be able to carry out efficiently and with proper regard to all concerned the management of water in Wales. I hope that the House will approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Welsh National Water Development Authority (Establishment and Constitution) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 19th July, be approved.