HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1141-51


Amendment made:

No 18, in page 7, line 11, leave out from 'Scotland' to 'and' in line 13 and insert 'the Ministry of Development in Northern Ireland, the Greater London Council and such associations of manufacturers, professional associations, local authority associations, trades unions'.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

Mr. Denis Howell

I beg to move Amendment No. 19, in line 27, at end insert— '(f) to review annually the work of the regional water authorities; to have special regard to their efficiency and their public accountability; to consider whether they are discharging their functions in a manner which enables the fullest expression of consumer and local authority interests to be taken into account; to consider the size of regional water authorities and to make recommendations to the Minister on any matters arising from such annual reviews'. This amendment is concerned with the powers of the new National Water Council. We feel that the council should have far more teeth than the Government seek to give it. I feel that the comments of Conservative back benchers in earlier discussions today would have been better deployed on this amendment. The Opposition had a great deal of sympathy with them in saying that boards should be given greater powers.

The powers given by the Government to the National Water Council in Clause 4 do not appear to add up to much. We see in subsection (5) that they include the duty of considering and advising the Minister on any matter relating to the national policy for water … But they do not appear to include special responsibility for planning and all that goes with it. The Minister apparently reserves this function to himself within the Department, and I believe that this this would be better if it were taken out of the Department.

Then in subsection (5)(b) we see that it is to be the council's duty to promote and assist the efficient performance by water authorities of their functions … We agree with that, but we do not know whether that is a meaningful obligation on the part of the national body.

Three other requirements are laid down by the Minister. The first concerns considering and advising the Minister on any matter on which the council is consulted —and I am sure nobody would object to that. If the Minister wants advice, presumably he could get it without writing it into the Bill. The two other requirements relate to testing of fittings, and training and education.

We are then left to consider the great vacuum that exists in the relationship between the National Water Council and the regional water authorities. The Bill proposes that the chairmen of the regional water authorities shall sit on the national water authority. We feel that the relationship between the national and regional water authorities should be much more clearly defined. Indeed the normal pattern when considering a national authority with a number of subsidiary authorities of one sort or another is for the national authority to have a greater degree of responsibility for those subsidiaries than is proposed in the Bill.

The obvious reason why the Government do not regard it as right to give the National Water Council such powers as we would give them is that the Minister does not regard the national water authority as the main instrument of Government policy but looks to the regional water authorities to fulfil this function. He is looking to the large regional water authorities which he is creating, and the only true purpose of the national authority, as he sees it, is to carry out a degree of co-ordination with a slight degree of national oversight.

Who is to have oversight of the work of the regional water authorities? This is not an academic question. It is a question of the greatest importance to every water consumer. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who has responsibility for consumer affairs. We have a great difficulty now— [Interruption.]. If she were to answer the debate we might get more satisfactory answers.

This is an extremely important point. If a domestic consumer is dissatisfied with the water service that he is receiving or with the arrangements for dealing with emergency repairs and pricing policy, he knows that he can take his complaint to his elected local authority and say, "My service is inadequate and the price I am being charged for the water is too high", and there is a definite degree of accountability. That is so in 80 per cent. of cases. In the other 20 per cent. of cases consumers can go to the directors or staff of the water company concerned. There is a direct relationship between the consumer and the authority providing the service.

All this is to be changed. We are to have these gigantic water authorities set up. For example, the Severn-Trent Water Authority, which is to have 20 members, will stretch from inside the Welsh border to Lincoln and from Stoke to Gloucester. It will be a fantastic size. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee objected and asked questions which still have not been answered. How can any person on an authority of that size adequately represent the consumer? He cannot. If the Secretary of State appoints a Welsh member to serve on the Severn-Trent Water Authority, which may decide to have its headquarters at Nottingham or Birmingham—that is not an outlandish proposition—that member will have a two-day journey to attend a committee meeting.

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

No, he will not.

Mr. Howell

Of course he will. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not understand the distances involved.

Mr. Thomas

I do.

Mr. Howell

There are no trunk roads or adequate motorways from the Principality to Birmingham which enable a person to get there and back in one day. In any event, the person appointed may not have his own transport. If he has to rely on public transport he will certainly require two days to attend a committee meeting.

Mr. Thomas

I hesitate to intervene on this matter, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. One can travel on dual carriageway all the way from Newport to Birmingham.

Mr. Howell

I wondered where the Secretary of State had been during our discussions. We are not talking about Newport, but about Montgomeryshire and the centre of Wales. One does not go down to Newport to get to Montgomeryshire. We are talking about a man coming across from the Elan Valley part of Wales if the Secretary of State appointed someone from that authority to serve on the Severn-Trent Water Authority. As I said, that man may not have his own transport. I am sure that we have not yet reached the stage where it might be said, "We shall not appoint people unless they can guarantee to provide their own transport to attend meetings."

I do not want to labour this point too much. There must be a relationship between the consumer and the person serving on the regional water authority. If there are to be only 20 members on these gigantic authority authorities, then I suggest that somebody must review how the system works in practice—whether regional water authorities are making sufficient arrangements for this degree of discussion and consultation with the consumer, whether there is a degree of public accountability. This is a matter of the greatest concern to all of us.

11.0 p.m.

In every nationalised industry there is that degree of public accountability to this place by one means or another. With every local authority there is a degree of public accountability, and even every private water company has a method of public accountability by the annual meeting when the shareholders can state their case.

How is there to be a degree of public accountability by the regional water authorities? The Minister must have given this some thought. All we say in the amendment is that the proper people on whom to place that responsibility, to see that there is adequate public accountability, must be the National Water Council.

If it is not the council it must be the Minister, and it should not be him but the National Water Council which should look at all the regional authorities and ask detailed questions about their efficiency, public policy, performance and accountability.

We should like to see, as we say in our amendment, that the fullest expression of consumer and local authority interests is taken into account.

We attach considerable importance to the last part of the amendment, that it should be the job of the National Water Council from time to time to consider the size of the regional water authorities and if it thinks it right—we are not asking that it be mandatory—in its examination of their performance, to make recommendations to the Minister. This is the most important part of the amendment because —and there is no party political point in this—the size of regional authorities gives us the greatest cause for concern. To be fair, it also causes the Minister concern, but for reasons of the hydrological cycle he could not find it possible to divide these authorities—not only the Severn-Trent but also the Anglia authority about which his hon. Friends complained in Committee.

When we see them in operation, surely the National Water Council should be able to ask themselves whether the regional authorities are working out. If the Minister has it wrong and the fears which some of us have expressed turn out to be right, surely the council should have the right to make recommendations to the Minister and say, "We think you should divide the Severn-Trent and do something about the gigantic Thames or Anglia authorities." It should be able freely to come forward, to examine the developing situation and to make a recommendation to the Minister.

Unless we make this amendment it will be nobody's specific duty to have the performance of regional water authorities constantly under review, to see that they are doing their job efficiently, and to see that there is the degree of accountability to the consumer which we should all like. There should be power to make recommendations to the Minister.

If the Minister says, "I naturally expect the National Water Council to do this and to tell me what is happening", but it is not written into the Bill, the council will not systematically examine these matters from time to time, or indeed annually, as we ask. I hope that the Minister will find this a constructive approach and that if he does not like our amendment he will find it possible to bring in a form of words in another place to meet the point which is giving concern to all hon. Members.

Mr. Graham Page

I must go back to Clause 1 to answer the points the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) made, because that clause clearly states that the Secretary of State and the Ministers concerned shall be responsible for national strategy, the water policy for England and Wales. It also says that they shall see that the functions are discharged by certain authorities which have the power to do so under the Bill. There is a direct relationship between the Secretary of State and the regional authorities, which we deliberately made in drawing up the new structure.

I differ from the hon. Gentleman on the following matter. He wishes to put the National Water Council as a controlling body between the Secretary of State and the regional water authorities. We look on the Council as the body that the Secretary of State consults, not as a top-tier authority above the regional water authorities. The regional water authorities are the executive bodies for the new structure. They will have large resources, covering a large geographical area. We do not see the Council as the big brother to the regional water authorities or as the top of the pyramid. It is the advisory body to the Secretary of State when he is carrying out his function under Clause 1—to have a national water policy and to see that it is carried out by the bodies and authorities to which the executive function is entrusted under the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked how the regional water authorities, such large bodies, covering such large areas, keep in touch with the public and how they are responsive to public demand and public feeling. We have put on them a majority of local authority appointees, and hope that the regional water authorities will keep in touch with local feeling through those representatives on the committees.

I also draw attention to Clause 6(8), under which the regional water authorities have power to appoint committees. I hope that under that subsection they will appoint committees locally where they feel that there are community interests, committees that can be the communication between the public and them. I have in mind recommending that sort of thing to the water authorities by circular. It will take the place of the local authority representation on boards which at present forms a communication between the public and the water boards. I think that we can have the same sort of function for local committees appointed by the regional water authorities.

The hon. Gentleman said that we must write into the Bill the powers of the National Water Council. In his proposed new paragraph (f) he has set out the sort of things he wants written into the Bill, but almost all are in the Bill already. One proposed duty is to review annually the work of the regional water authorities". Under subsections 5(a) and (b) the Council has a duty to consider, and advise any Minister on any matter relating to the national policy for water, and to consider and advise any Minister and the water authorities on any other matter of common interest to those authorities". Then under paragraph (b) it is the duty of the council … to promote and assist the efficient performance by water authorities of their functions … and under Schedule 3(38) the council as well as the water authorities has to make an annual report to the Minister. I should have thought that by providing for that annual report and by imposing the duty on the council to advise the Minister on the matters set out in Clause 4(5)(a) and (b), we had covered the hon. Gentleman's points.

The second sentence in the amendment refers to the need to have special regard to the water authorities' efficiency and their public accountability. I think that I have covered the efficiency point in the paragraphs that I have quoted. As for public accountability, I remind the House of Clauses 25 and 26, which deal with the financial provisions. Under Clause 25(2), The Secretary of State may with the approval of the Treasury and after consultation with the Council direct … as appropriate in connection with the financial schemes, and so on. There it is: after consultation with the council. Again in Clause 26(3) the Secretary of State is obliged to consult the council before he gives certain directions on financial matters.

There are these duties under the Bill for the Secretary of State to consult the council. There are duties on the council to advise the Ministers concerned. That advice must surely cover the size of the regional water authorities. This is a vital point in the Bill. No council could advise the Secretary of State that a water authority was carrying out its duties in a proper way if it thought that the authority was too big or too small. I am sure that that advice would come from the council if it thought amendments to the legislation were necessary, and those amendments could be carried out by order so far as they affected the geography of the regional water authorities.

The National Water Council has very considerable advisory powers. It was never intended to be an executive body, except in terms of water fittings and industrial training—the special items under Clause 4(5)(d) and (e). It is the important advisory body to the Secretary of State. In its advice it can cover all the points raised in the amendment and include such advice publicly in its annual report. I say that because the annual report has to be presented to the House. It has to be made known to the public. The advice that it gives can be known to the House and will be known to the public, and it can be as strong as the council choose to make it.

I am sure that we have the structure of this right. In my view it would be wrong to set up a pyramid, with the National Water Council at the top and the regional water authorities as some second tier to the council.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell

May I reply with the leave of the House? I found the Minister's reply in part satisfactory and in part disappointing. It was satisfactory because he agreed with everything I wanted to do in regard to a review and public accountability. That being so, I cannot understand why he cannot accept the amendment or something like it and write this provision into the Bill. I was disappointed because, when he sought to tell me why it was not necessary, he was quite off the ball and indeed, in part irrelevant.

The clauses to which the Minister referred me, Clauses 4, 25 and 26, were not on the point which concerns us. Clause 4(5) does not lay on the National Water Council any duty to review the work of the regional water authorities. I wish it did. It relates to its advising the Minister on various matters of policy relating to a national policy for water. That phrase would have to be interpreted very carefully if it were to be taken as meaning reviewing the work of the regional authorities. I am not a lawyer, as is the Minister and as are several hon. Members opposite at the moment, but I doubt whether the courts would interpret the phrase in that way.

Clauses 25 and 26, which he quoted as taking care of my point about public accountability, say that the Secretary of State has a duty to consult, but that does not deal with the issue I raised— the accountability of regional water authorities to their consumers. That is a matter which the Minister agrees must be of concern. Any body supplying a commodity must have regard to how it will be accountable to its consumers.

I do not want to press this amendment, but even at this late stage I hope that the Minister will think again. If he had undertaken that if, on further reflection, he thought that I was right about public accountability and size, he would seek to deal with the matter, I should have been happy. If he still thought that he was right, I should be happy to leave it with him, although I am not convinced at this point of the logic of his argument.

Mr. Graham Page

I could not fail to respond to that. The hon. Gentleman is right about the sort of matter that he would like the National Water Council to lock at and advise the Secretary of State about. If he would agree that we should not build a hierarchy, with the National Water Council at the top and the regional water authorities at the bottom, I will look at it again on that basis.

Mr. Howell

I do not agree with the Minister about the rôle of the National Water Council, but I am not seeking to raise that matter again now. I hope that the Minister will accept that I am not trying to raise again something which was defeated earlier. In the light of his assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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