HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1161-7


Sir Robin Turton

I beg to move Amendment No. 172, in page 14, line 1, leave out from beginning to 'authority' in line 3 and insert 'A water'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this Amendment it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 173, in line 4, leave out 'the company ' and insert 'the statutory water undertakers whose limits of supply are included in whole or in part in their area.". No. 174, in line 7, leave out 'company' and insert 'statutory water undertakers'.

No. 175, in line 9, leave out 'company' and insert 'statutory water undertakers' and leave out 'company undertakes' and insert 'undertakers undertake'. No. 176, in line 17, leave out 'company 'and insert' statutory water undertakers'.

No. 177, in line 20, leave out first 'company' and insert 'statutory water undertakers'.

No. 178, in line 25, leave out 'company' and insert 'undertakers'.

No. 179, in line 35, leave out 'a statutory water company' and insert 'statutory water undertakers'.

No. 180, in line 36, leave out 'company' and insert 'undertakers'.

No. 181, in line 37, leave out 'it' and insert 'them'.

No. 182, in line 40, leave out 'a statutory water company' and insert 'any statutory water undertakers'.

No. 183, in line 40, leave out 'company' and insert 'undertakers'.

No. 184, in page 15, line 1, leave out 'a statutory water company, joint water board or joint water committee' and insert 'statutory water undertakers'.

No. 185, in line 3, leave out 'company or companies in question is or' and insert 'undertakers'.

No. 186, in line 8, leave out 'a statutory water company' and insert 'any statutory water undertakers'.

No. 187, in Clause 29, page 32, leave out lines 30 to 34.

Sir Robin Turton

Do I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in addition to Mr. Speaker's provisional selection of amendments, we are to discuss Amendment No. 190, in page 14, line 20, leave out second 'company' and insert 'statutory water undertakers'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Sir Robin Turton

Amendment No. 172 and its 16 consequential amendments are designed to give to joint water boards the same agency powers as under Clause 11 are to be enjoyed by statutory undertakers.

The history of water authorities is that in 1955 there were 1,100 water authorities, many of them small and inefficient. Now there are 28 statutory water companies and 170 joint water boards. All are now large and efficient. In the Bill 28 statutory water companies are selected to carry out agency powers, and yet the 170 which are quite as efficient and which cover usually the wider open spaces in the country are being excluded and, under Clause 29, are being abolished from next April.

This means that over most of the country there will be no grass roots organisation. At present with local authority joint water boards there is a democratic channel of communication between the water consumer and the local elected member of the board, and that is what we are trying to replace. This gap in the Bill has been mentioned many times in debates on earlier amendments.

To illustrate what will happen I will take the Yorkshire area with 4½ million inhabitants and 12 local authority representatives. The only channel of communication in that area will be the one local authority representative for putting forward the complaints of 380,000 electors. That is an impossible position, as has been recognised by the Minister in his recent observations.

An even more dramatic contrast is shown in my constituency. Some of my constituents will be in the area of a statutory water undertaker and when they have a complaint about charging or distribution they can take their complaint to a director of the board and have it properly dealt with. But the rest of the area will be under the Yorkshire Water Authority and there will be no easy channel of communication except by an approach to the official.

That cannot be rectified by the Minister's suggestion that the regional water authorities may or may not appoint advisory committees. It is not the same thing to have advisory committees as to have local authorities acting as agents for regional water authorities. Many of the nationalised boards have consumer advisory committees but they do not give the same satisfaction as a local authority would give when acting as an agent.

That is also recognised by what will happen during the transitional period. During that period those who are now joint water boards will be provisional management units acting as agents for the regional water authorities. That will be limited to three years. The amendments do not attempt to interfere with the giving to regional water authorities of full powers to deal with planning and resources. This is an attempt to put them in the same position as the statutory water board undertakings—namely, to give them agency powers.

I hope that when the Minister replies to this series of amendments he will give us some picture of how in a water area such as that of my constituency, and the constituencies of many hon. Members, he sees a grass roots organisation dealing with complaints about distribution and charging going through locally elected representatives to the regional water authorities. The right way for that to happen is to give such organisations agency powers. I cannot conceive of any area of a regional water authority finding it possible to carry out its work of dealing with the complaints and problems which are inevitably connected with distribution and charging without some method of locally elected committees acting for it as agents. The Minister may have talked about local committees, but they cannot merely be advisory committees.

In the reorganisation I hope that every effort will be made to keep local headquarters and local water depots going where they are now. They are a focal point for complaints from water consumers. There have been statements made in Yorkshire that on reorganisation it is the intention of those who think that they will become the regional water authority to shut down the local depots and local headquarters of water authorities. That has caused great consternation.

It is the view in many parts of the country that one of the weaknesses of the Bill is that it will be handing over the whole system of water distribution and charging from a local authority system to a system which will be run bureaucratically. Many of the conferences which have taken place with the present statutory water undertakers have left that impression. It has caused a great deal of consternation and a good deal of hostility to the Bill. That would be removed entirely if this series of amendments were accepted now or given further consideration in another place.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I have a great deal of sympathy with the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton). In my constituency with the so-called rationalisation of the gas and electricity boards local offices frequently are closed and the accessibility of the boards to local complaints is much less than it used to be. This is a cause for complaint and is something of which I am very much aware. My right hon. and learned Friend and I are anxious to avoid any such criticisms being levelled at the new water authorities.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State wishes there to be a medium of communication between the public and the providers of the water services. He believes that the local authorities have a special value in that they are locally accessible and know the local situation.

The Government recognise that the elected members of joint water boards provide a useful line of communication between consumers and water undertakings. The new water authorities will retain an extensive divisional organisation of local depots, local offices and local points of contact for the convenience of the consumer. In addition, in Clause 6(8) of the Bill the new authorities will have power to set up advisory committees and my right hon. and learned Friend intends to draw this provision to the attention of the new regional water authorities and to the use which could be made of it in appropriate circumstances in setting up local advisory committees, which would include locally elected members, to act as a channel of communication between the consumer and the water authority.

I give my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton that assurance. But I think he feels that we should go further and that it is not sufficient for there simply to be an advisory committee. He wants the elected local authorities somehow still to be able to act, as it were, as consumer councils. Because the Government are anxious to protect consumer interests in many matters as well as in considerations affecting water, my right hon. and learned Friend is prepared to consider the matter in the light of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. If we are able to find some way in which the elected local authorities can effectively continue to advise the regional water authorities on consumer interests within their areas, we shall be glad to put forward our conclusions in another place. I am not able to give any firm undertaking, but we shall look at the matter and I am sure the subject will be fully explored in another place.

Sir Robin Turton

Having heard what my hon. Friend said, and in full confidence that the matter will be fully debated in another place, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Arthur Jones

I beg to move Amendment No. 29, in line 36, after 'steps', insert 'at the expense of the company'.

Water companies are required to provide a water supply for the regional water authorities. I wish to ask whether subsection (6) places an obligation on the regional water authority to ensure the viability of a statutory water company, its proper management, and to ensure that it keeps the regional water authority supplied with water. What means are there for ensuring that the company is required to pay for any supplies which are made available to it under the subsection? That is the question an answer to which is required in the terms of the amendment.

12 midnight.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

My hon. Friend has reasonably posed a question that requires an answer. I suspect that the amendment is prompted by the belief, which has been expressed by a number of local authority associations, that no provision is made for a statutory water company to contribute towards the cost of works by the water authority which, directly or indirectly, benefit that particular private company's customers.

I assure my hon. Friend that that anxiety is unfounded. First, the company will pay charges in connection with its licence to abstract water. Those charges, which will be paid to the RWA, will correspond to those which it pays at present to the river authorities under the Water Resources Act.

Secondly, it will make direct payments to the relevant water authority for any bulk supplies of water that it receives from that authority, and in many cases it will receive a good deal.

Thirdly, the other provisions of the 1963 Act will continue to apply—notably Section 81, which provides, inter alia, for ad hoc agreements to be made for a contribution by a company to a water authority towards the cost of the works which my hon. Friend has in mind.

I assure my hon. Friend that the amendment is unnecessary. This point is covered within the terms of the Bill and the preceding legislation that is caught up and applied by way of the various clauses in it. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter, because it is important that the local authority associations should know that these requirements to pay for the water received, for the licences and to make agreements on an ad hoc basis exist within the Bill and will be effective on the statutory companies.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his explanation and assurance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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