HC Deb 02 May 1973 vol 855 cc1261-87
Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

I beg to move Amendment No. 74, in page 30, line 30, after ' premises ', insert ' other than domestic premises'.

We have discussed many clauses and amendments of vital significance to local authorities or to river boards or to fishermen, or to various other interests. This clause is of direct concern to every consumer of water—to every householder in the British Isles. Subsection (1) is the most retrograde part of the whole Bill.

The Government seek by subsection (1) to introduce the principle of metering by volume to domestic consumers in the same way as there is metering by volume to industrial and some commercial consumers. It may be argued that it is fair and proper that water should be treated like any other commodity—like, for example, coal, gas and electricity—and that one should pay for one's water in accordance with what one consumes, regardless of one's circumstances, of one's means, of one's necessity, of the size of one's family.

That concept is totally foreign and alien not only to the Opposition's view but to the traditions of the country. Our Victorian forefathers, even in an age where everything had to be charged and paid for, treated water as something which it was the right of the public to use according to need.

Of course the provision and supply of water has to be paid for. But it is paid for at present by domestic consumers on the much fairer basis of a water rate, which does not take into account the amount of water consumed or the need of the particular house but spreads the cost of water consumption over the community as a whole. That has been in existence for 100 years. It is something we think of as part of the tradition in Britain—that water should be supplied to people in accordance with their need and not in accordance with their means.

4.0 p.m.

Why should water be treated on a financial basis in the way the Government propose? From a public health point of view the step which the Government are taking is extremely grave. Water is used not only for drinking but for flushing toilets, for cleaning and for washing in domestic premises. A charge for water such as the Government would allow the water boards to make would be a tax on cleanliness, a tax on public health.

In Committee on the Bill someone said that this clause would condition the number of times a person goes to the toilet. It cannot condition that, but it can condition the number of times that a toilet is flushed. That is the level to which the Government have brought us by introducing a charge on the consumption of water.

Mr. Simeons

Would not the hon. Member accept that even if everyone in this Chamber refrained for a week— Heaven help that they should—from using water for washing, the saving in cost would be so small that one could do hardly anything with the money saved? Such non-use of water would have an effect only in larger premises, and they are already metered.

Mr. Oakes

I shall deal with that aspect but at the moment I am dealing with the householder in an ordinary house where water is used for drinking, for making tea, for washing, for baths and for cleaning the house—the ordinary use of water in households. Although it may not be known to the general public, it is proposed by Clause 28 that the regional water boards, when the Act becomes effective or at such time as they may determine, should introduce in their areas meters in domestic houses.

The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) spoke about the more abnormal use of water. The Government could have dealt with that without a general metering charge. I accept that where water is used in domestic premises for what one may consider as non-domestic purposes—for example, for a swimming bath—there should be some metering of the water. We would not disagree about that, but very few households in this country have swimming baths. In fact, too few have ordinary baths. The Government could bring in an amendment to charge for water going into swimming baths or for water used for garden purposes. We would not object to that. But we object to the use of that as an excuse for a blanket charge for water in ordinary domestic premises.

Another aspect which I am sure the Government have considered is the enormous cost of the scheme they are proposing. There have been various estimates, running into millions of pounds, of introducing water meters into domestic premises. That would be on capital account alone. The cost of introducing meters, which would have to be paid by the householders, would itself be astronomical. In addition, there would be the revenue cost of all the water inspectors going round to read the meters and then the computing of bills, not on the comparatively simple basis of the present water rate but according to a consumption basis.

I wonder what is to happen to the household which does not pay its water bill when charged in this way. Could the Government or the water authority cheerfully cut off the water supply as some authorities at present cut off elec- tricity or gas supplies? Have the Government thought of the public health hazard which would result from such a step? These are all difficulties which can be envisaged in treating water as a commodity in the way in which commodities bought over the counter in a shop are treated.

Mr. Arthur Jones (Northants, South)

What would be the attitude of the hon. Member if the metering of supplies actually meant that the cost of water to a domestic consumer should go down?

Mr. Oakes

I can envisage that to certain domestic consumers this might lead to the cost going down. Their consumption is small because of their needs. But to the family with four, five or six children with napkins to wash and all the problems of a household, I think the cost would go up. It would go down for some people who perhaps could afford the cost better than the family with a number of children. I still say that our present system of a water rate spreading the burden over the whole community is a far better and fairer system of charging than one with the minor advantages that might be achieved by a small section of the community paying a smaller charge because their consumption is less.

When dealing with water we are not dealing with a commodity which—apart from swimming baths and things of that sort—is a luxury. We are dealing with a basic, essential necessity of life. The Government are trying to bring in a metering charge for a basic, essential factor of life. We are totally opposed to the concept of metering being introduced in this way into private houses.

Is there such a waste of water resources in private houses as to make metering essential? Consumption of potable water in domestic premises compared with the enormous consumption for industrial purposes, is almost negligible. Consideraing the amount of water wasted at present for all sorts of reasons, metering would not be an answer. There is wastage because of burst pipes or defective washers on taps. Surely the Government should introduce a free plumbing service by which those washers could be replaced to conserve water rather than embarking on the enormously costly and unfair procedure of introducing meters into private houses.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

Will the hon. Member say what he means by "a free service "? Who would pay?

Mr. Oakes

The water authority would pay. When I say "a free service" I mean that if someone has a leaking tap it could be to the advantage of the regional water authority, just as it is for many local authorities today, to send someone to mend that tap rather than having the deterrent for the consumer of receiving a bill for mending the tap. If that is the Government's intention, that would be far more economical than introducing metering and far fairer to the poorer-paid family, those people who have no choice but to use water.

We do not approve, either, of the way in which the Government have done this. The Under-Secretary was cautious in a recent speech about metering, because he knew what the effect in the country would be of the introduction of a commercial basis for an essential need. He said that meters would not be automatically introduced into every home but that certain water authorities would have the power to introduce them, that it was their decision. What he meant was, "We do not have the guts to do this. We will leave it, not to democratically elected councils, but to regional boards, the chairmen of which will be appointed by the Secretary of State." The people will have no say in this revolutionary change.

We have no objection to metering of the abnormal needs of commercial or industrial premises or of swimming baths and other unusual uses in domestic premises. We are concerned about the tens of millions of ordinary homes in which, under Clause 28, un-elected water authorities will be able to install meters. We are concerned about the cost of metering and of servicing and are very much concerned about public health. Most of all, we are concerned about the effect of this on the pockets of ordinary people.

The charge for water will be imposed not simply for water, as at present. Clause 28(1) means that it will be a charge for sewerage as well. Whatever passes through the meter will be registered as water. Just as water has been paid for by a water rate, so sewerage has always been accepted as a public responsibility of local authorities, aided by the Government through the rate support grant. In the early hours of this morning, the dead hour when there is no reporting, we heard that the Government intends that the regional water authorities should, in the Government's classic phrase, "stand on their own feet"—which in fact means standing on the feet of the consumer, especially the domestic consumer. Clause 28 also provides that £100 million in grant will be saved by the Government but put on to the shoulders of the domestic consumer. The meter will deal not only with water but also with sewerage.

4.15 p.m.

This is not a decision which should be left to the undemocratic regional water authorities. This elected House must make up its mind on so vital a change in our attitude—whether water should be treated as an essential need or like any other commodity.

I would ask hon. Members on both sides who care about public health as well as the situation of the ordinary consumer to support the admendment and thereby avoid this attempt to put the clock back in public health over 100 years.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) and I remind the House that Clause 25 puts a responsibility on regional water authorities to make a return on their notional assets In other words, not only is the £100 million being taken from grants towards sewerage, but the Minister will be able to make the water authorities show a profit.

No doubt the method of metering will be used possibly as a threat or in marginal circumstances at first and may be, as the notes on the clause suggest, gradually extended over the years to produce those notional profits. This will be done at the householder's expense.

My hon. Friend missed out an important part of society who use a good deal of water—the invalids, the sick and children. Imagine a housewife with an elderly, possibly incontinent, relative and many children. The amount saved by economy may be only 4p or the price of a packet of crisps, but we all know what women do when they are trying to save. They will be nagging the children and they will think twice about washing the kitchen floor—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary laughts at this. He thinks that I am talking moonshine. He talks moonshine about metering. He seems to think that this will not worry many housewives. He and the Government are as unrealistic about this matter as about so many others.

Mr. Simeons

Why is it wrong to meter water but right to measure milk? Both are vital.

Mr. Spearing

That may be, but the point about water—I do not want to go into a long lecture, because time is limited —is that it is far more important to public health and the basic proper living of people than anything, including food.

If the hon. Member does not understand the basic importance of water in public health and in community life in this country, he should read a few history books of the nineteenth century. The total organisation of water in Britain is founded on a series of Public Health Acts of the last century. It is a far different system from that on the Continent, where they also meter water more extensively. Indeed, the fittings and the taps to which my hon. Friend referred are of a very high standard in this country and are kept to a very high standard because if there is a leak the loss goes to the water undertaking and not to the consumer.

The document which we have from the Government on this matter in default of a proper White Paper says that they are engaged in experiments to see how far metering would be helpful. They go on to say in their notes on clauses that there may possibly be a meter not to charge by volume but to give a charge on minimum consumption. This requires reading and it will require extra billing. At the moment the water rate is collected in many places with the ordinary rates. Under the new organisation this will need new machinery.

The Government have never said why they have put this into the Bill. The British Water Association has published a memorandum on metering and has said that studies show—and of course there has been a study in Malvern—that … there was little difference between meter charges and charges based on net annual value. The minimum charge for metered supplies to domestic premises would have to be set at a figure which would allow an adequate supply of water to meet normal health requirements, so that a large number of meters would be unproductive, because the minimum would be unlikely to be exceeded. I know the hon. Gentleman says that he is not definitely going to insist that water authorities do this, but the fact that there is a provision in the Bill for domestic premises is a very dangerous and bad precedent. If he did not mean it seriously, if it was nothing more than moonshine, as he tried to make out in a speech not long ago, this part of the clause would not be there.

I refer in even stronger terms to the lack of information from the Government on this subject. We dealt with this briefly in Committee and, as reported in column 980 of the Standing Committee report, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the present Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, no less, chaired a sub-committee on water charges in 1963 which reaffirmed the retention of a system of charging related to net annual value although they were aware that the system concerned was not ideal.

I asked the right hon. Gentleman at that meeting of the Committee what had happened since then to change the Secretary of State's mind. At the end of a subsequent debate the Minister for Local Government and Development said that he would provide a letter which he would send to me, with copies to the members of the Committee, which would set out the reasons. He said that he would … write to the hon. Gentleman setting out the case for this clause —that is the metering clause— and provide the rest of the Committee with a copy of the letter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 12th April 1973; c. 995.] I do not recall having received that letter and I have checked with some of my hon. Friends who tell me they have not received it either. Not only have we not had a White Paper on the Bill, not only has the country as a whole not been properly informed about this, but even hon. Members who were members of the Committee have not received the letter they were promised. I absolve the right hon. Gentleman from any deliberate intent—I know him too well to think that he intended that—but there appears to have been a slip-up in the machinery. I think it is a very good example of how bad things are in terms of information to the public and the accountability of Parliament that we come to the Report stage in the House when information of this sort is not available.

I raised this point on a Welsh matter yesterday, and I am glad to see that the Minister of State, Welsh Office, is here. I was not concerned with the Welsh issue but with the question of information to the public, and I am glad he takes that point.

Mr. Graham Page

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I had kept up to date with all the letters I had promised to write. I gave a rather large number of undertakings during the Committee stage. I did not know that I had slipped up, and I apologise sincerely.

Mr. Spearing

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As I said, I knew his intention and I am perfectly well aware that he was very anxious to do this. I do not think it is necessarily his fault. I would not expect him to read all the columns afterwards. But I think this is symptomatic of the difficulties in which perhaps some of those who advised him on the Bill have put the House and the country.

The speech made by the Undersecretary on 6th March was also symptomatic. The Press notice read: Water metering will not become compulsory—assures Eldon Griffiths. Suggestions that water metering to domestic households will be made compulsory on 1st April 1974 are complete moonshine, said Eldon Griffiths, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of the Environment in London today. It is easy to imagine the impression that people will get from that. It is an official Press statement from the Department of the Environment. But nobody had suggested that it would become compulsory on 1st April 1974. That is another way in which the Minister sometimes gets things wrong, and we misunderstand him on too many occasions, I fear.

However, it is quite clear that the power is there for a regional water authority to make it compulsory. Far from being moonshine, I fear this is something which is very real indeed. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman used this technique at that time because I believe that, combined with the lack of information from the Government on this subject, it has caused great discomfort and will cause great discomfort to them in the future and indeed cast doubt on the probity of Government, politicians and democratic institutions as a whole.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Is that point not even more realistic when it is considered that the Government have reserved the power to appoint the chairmen, so that the first question to be put to any potential chairman is whether he agrees with having domestic water metered?

Mr. Spearing

We were discussing that very question only last night. I think it is very unlikely that any Minister would appoint a chairman of a regional water authority knowing that he was against the policy of domestic metering. It could be that he would do so, but this whole question of the independence of regional water authority chairmen is brought into focus by this very important issue. Even if the public are not interested in sewerage and water as a whole, they are, I am glad to say, interested in water metering because this is something they will have to pay for out of their own pockets.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydvil)

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) and the answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), would he not also accept that there is an additional point concerning cases in which these regional water authorities are against water metering but the chairmen support it? In this way discord could arise in a very important area of public policy.

Mr. Spearing

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Methyr Tydvil is completely right. I am horrified to contemplate the situation in a large regional water authority—perhaps Severn-Trent— where the majority of members say one thing and the chairman another, and the Secretary of State backs the chairman, it is easy to imagine the effect on the efficiency of the organisation in that huge area. That is a very good example of why the administration of this Bill will cause great difficulty.

This is a very important clause. The Government have not provided their case for having it in the Bill and that is the very reason why the right hon. Gentleman courteously said that he would send me a letter giving the reasons. That was a tacit admission that a case had not been properly made out. As he admitted today, that case has still to be made. That is one of the reasons why I shall vote in the Lobby, and I hope that many other hon. Members will do so, too.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) is right in saying that a plentiful supply of water, including water for domestic use, is vital to public health, but I am sure he would agree that it is equally vital, and perhaps for the very reasons he has given, that water should not be wasted.

We are in the early days of experiment and thought on the subject of metering, especially metering for domestic purposes. If experiment and thoughts show that water would be saved in substantial quantities by its being metered for domestic purposes, it would be foolish to suggest to the Government that they should come back at a later stage and obtain the power to meter, when there is this obviously suitable opportunity of taking that power now.

I was very surprised that the Opposition Front Bench argued that provision for the metering of water for domestic purposes should be excluded from the clause. If, by some misfortune, they found themselves in power after some years, when experiment and thought on the matter had gone further, I am sure that they would greatly regret not having the power if it were found necessary to use it.

Consumption of water per head has increased every year since records were first kept, and every year this century the population has increased. Even if we manage to stabilise the population, it will increase by another 5 million to 10 million above its present level by about the end of the century. In those circumstances, as it will not be easy to secure the increased water supplies both for further increased consumption per head and for a much larger population, the exclusion of the possibility of metering domestic supplies at this stage would be utterly wrong.

I hope that my right hon. Friend, without labouring the point too much, will advise the House to reject the amendment.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Rowlands

In some ways the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and I see the matter through different political eyes and through different personal eyes. We are in different stages of our life. I am still in the nappy-washing stage, as a young father with young children.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about wasting water. I would not consider it wasted in the average young family household, even when occasionally I see my son running the taps and dabbling his hands in the water. Young parents sometimes have to nag their children about putting out the lights and so on. I should hate to have to nag children on the use to which they are putting such a simple resource as water.

The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) has made the point that the savings achieved by the use of petty metering techniques in domestic households are likely to be small in proportion compared with the savings in industry or what can be achieved by the reuse of water or other techniques.

Mr. Simeons

The point I was making was that in monetary terms the saving was negligible, but in gallonage it was quite high.

Mr. Rowlands

Both sides will agree that all the evidence points to the fact that great savings of water can be made in other ways, and that metering will make a marginal contribution.

We must take into account a whole variety of family and domestic problems that could arise if we put a higher premium on the use of water. The Minister said yesterday that he believed in charges, not taxation. That is the thin end of the wedge, as the clause is. The Government do not openly admit that they want meters, but they want to hedge their bets. They realise that metering is unpopular, but the whole philosophy of charging the consumer, irrespective of income and need, pushes them along the path towards water meters. The House would be misled if the Government did not admit that the clause is pushing open the door, and that eventually Government policy will be that water meters should be in every household. That is why we oppose the clause in principle, not because we expect metering to begin in April 1974.

We have seen government by Press release from the Under-Secretary. The Press office of his Department must be working full-time for the hon. Gentleman on these issues. He travels the country explaining the position. Metering may not begin in April 1974, but the Government intend to introduce the principle of water meters and switch the burden of the cost of water from the community as a whole to the individual consumer, irrespective of income and need.

Does this mean that we shall have the equivalent of rent rebates on metered water charges? [Interruption.] It is not silly. If the householder is charged, the Government will presumably then say "Some householders cannot afford to pay, so they will have to be means-tested to have a rebate." That is what happens once the Government start along the path towards switching the burden of the cost of water supplies to the individual family and household from the community as a whole, in the form of direct charges. We should oppose that, not because we think—

Mr. Ronald Brown

The next stage is the police State, which we had in the war, when the Government did not put in meters but forbade people to have more than four inches of water in the bath. They are now trying to do the same thing by meter, but will have to fall back on the police State.

Mr. Rowlands

I am in the nappy-washing stage. I was not born at the time of which my hon. Friend speaks, but I am grateful for his historical references.

We suffer from gas boards that cannot send out correct gas bills. Is the same thing to happen with water? Shall we have inspectors and water meter readers?

There is a principle involved in the clause, besides the practical problems. The supply of water to households and families is a part of our local public health and social services, and, therefore, should be kept as cheap as possible. Whatever savings there might be for some people, usually single persons, the concept of water meters will herald an era of more expensive water for the household and family. That is why the Opposition will divide the House on the matter.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Middleton and Prestwich)

I apologise for contributing to the debate now, when I have not been conspicuous by my dutiful attendance on other occasions during the consideration of the Bill. I have received many representations on the subject from different quarters and felt that I should try to take part in the debate.

I do not oppose the giving of a permissive power to meter water supplies to all types of premises, and therefore I oppose the amendment. My approach is slightly different from that of certain other hon. Members. To give a power to meter water supplies is not precisely the same as to make a direction that in all circumstances supplies should be metered. It would be helpful—I make this concession to what was said by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing)—if the Government could be more specific and give greater clarity on precisely what is in their mind in seeking to include the power in the Bill. [Interruption.] It is fair to say that previous statements from the Government Front Bench have not been specific to the last degree.

My enthusiasm for metering varies according to the circumstances we are considering. It is accepted that almost all supplies to industrial premises are metered. There is provision for metering commercial premises, and the clause would allow that provision to be widened.

A commercial user in my constituency has seen his water rates rise from £4.10 per annum in 1964 to £88.69 in 1972. That was without any increase in water usage. While the cost of water has risen 47 per cent. the charges have risen by 2,100 per cent. I can understand the anger felt by commercial users about the present system for charging for water. An extension in metering for them is wholly justified. It is the same sort of considering which affects the minds of domestic users.

I look at this first on the basis of what sort of metering is proposed for domestic users. Is it to be metering without the option or are we giving a power to the new water authorities so that they may be able to respond to demands from users to have their supplies metered? There is a considerable distinction between compulsory metering and a person's right to have his water metered. I do not know with whom Labour hon. Members mingle but I have found that many people are totally incensed by the present method of charging for their water supplies. They get pretty hot under the collar about the ordinary system of general rating. Perhaps hon. Gentlemen opposite had not heard of that.

When, in addition, they find that the charges for water are related to the rateable value of their premises and they are suddenly facing a severe increase in water charges which has nothing to do with consumption they get even more angry. If hon. Gentlemen have not encountered that point of view I will not accuse them of being in dereliction of their duty in failing to meet their constituents. All I will say is that I am slightly surprised that they have not met this.

Mr. Spearing

What the hon. Gentleman forgets is that while the water race is tied to reateable value, by and large water charges are relatively small so that the increase in cash terms is also relatively small.

Mr. Haselburst

I understand that, but that sweetly reasonable explanation is not always greeted with unalloyed pleasure by the people to whom it is given. If the hon. Gentleman does not realise that there is great resentment about this, I am surprised.

Can my hon. Friend say whether it is intended that a choice should be given to the consumer as to how the charge shall be levied? Does the case for domestic metering rest entirely upon the amount of water that can be conserved, and must it therefore be a universal practice? It would be interesting to know whether the Government have investigated the potential saving of water through the introduc- tion of metering in domestic premises and whether they can say how these savings compare with savings in other directions, for example as a result of research on desalination processes.

While I am curious to know the answer to these questions—and we need to know the answers—when we come to the arguments advanced by the Opposition we can well ask what evidence they have for some of their propositions. There is the idea that this is hitting at large families or at people generally and that there is a risk to public hygiene because people will not wash regularly. These are theories that may be introduced in some debating society. What clear, quantifiable evidence is there that this is a danger following upon the permissive powers in this Bill? Are not their statements based upon some homespun philosophy, as we see the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) toiling over the nappies in the bath? Is this based on what they think may happen or can they say that there is a measureable amount of danger to health standards?

4.45 p.m.

If hon. Gentlemen are representing the fears that exist in the minds of some of their constituents they ought to measure them against the feelings of other constituents who are just as numerous, if not more so, and who are incensed about the present method of charging. These people are urging their representatives to change the system in some way. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil that we should oppose this because it is opening the door to action by future Governments. I cannot see any great harm in giving a permissive power, particularly if it is to enable citizens to have a wider choice. Any Government can come forward and take this step in future if they want to. I do not understand the hon. Member's argument about the thin end of the wedge. It is not a very strong one for a vote on the principle.

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend is undertaking a study into the system of charging, in conjunction with the National Water Council. I hope that when advice is given it will be in the attempt to provide a choice. I hope that the individual water authorities will not be told that they must go ahead with a compulsory system of metering but that this might be conceded as a right of the consumer. That is my approach, and if this is at the kernel of the Government's intention in introducing the clause, I do not see why there should be so much steam raised against it. I am certainly prepared to support the Government.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

When the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) moved the amendment he was good enough to tell us that the Government's action was the most retrograde step taken—I am not sure whether he said this century but certainly for a considerable time. He waxed eloquent and indignant, and it was obvious that his party had made this a set piece. This was the moment when it would demonstrate to the public how defective the Bill is and how it is the champion of the long-suffering public.

I had expected to see the Labour benches packed when the hon. Gentleman rose to deliver this tirade which would destroy the Government's case. There was, however, but a thin cheer from two of his hon. Friends. I was reminded of the actor who peered out from behind the stage curtains at the theatre and discovered that there were only two people present. The producer comforted him by saying that it was a splendid audience—both of them were chatty. That was the situation in which the hon. Gentleman found himself when he delivered this attack designed to make the flesh of the public creep, saying that somehow or other the metering of water was to be forced upon the public by a Government seeking to finance the whole of the water industry at the cost of the nappy-washing of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands).

This is a total travesty of the truth. I could not think of a better phrase than that quoted by the hon. Member from an earlier speech of mine when I said that the Opposition's case was sheer moonshine. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton)—who understand these matters—has said, we are at a very early stage. A good deal of thought must be given to this and more experience gained before final decisions are taken.

We give the regional water authorities —which will be powerful statutory bodies with elected local authority majorities—a broad power to charge. There is no reason to suppose that they will use their discretionary and permissive power irresponsibly. They will be able to make charges according to the volume of water supplied to or taken away from any premises, whether they be domestic or industrial. I emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwick (Mr. Haselhurst) that this is a discretionary and permissive power which the regional water authorities themselves must determine in the light of the circumstances within their area.

To answer my hon. Friend's other comment, it would be possible to give the individual consumer the right to opt for metering, but if some individuals only were to opt in that direction inevitably the cost of the installation of metering in one place, and all the con-sequentials, would be extremely high. Such an individual consumer might well find that the capital cost would be hardly worth the gain he might achieve. But I will make sure that the group under my Department that is studying this matter gives consideration to the points which my hon. Friend has raised.

The regional water authorities will have power to make charges for the water that they supply. I was reasonably asked why the Government thought that this discretionary power should be given to them. One reason is that the Central Advisory Water Committee—the statutory body that advises the Government on these matters—concluded that metering was by far the fairest and most effective method of ensuring economy in the use of water. The Central Advisory Water Committee's Sub-Committee on Water Charges reported that this would be the best way of doing it, and its conclusions gain a good deal of support from the grievances, expressed to my Department frequently through hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches, of elderly people living alone who use water only for their modest domestic purposes. These people see little justice in their being obliged to pay the same charge for their water as do the family of four or five living in the identically valued house next door who use perhaps six or seven times as much water, for the automatic washing machine, the dish washer, the sink waste grinder and the couple of cars which they shampoo regularly. We frequently hear from hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches complaints from elderly people who find little justice in the present system of charging.

I come to deal with the specific complaints that have been made in the debate. One suggestion was that metering will enforce economy of water use on the lowly-paid and that this will produce dangers to public health. We have looked into this matter in some detail, and we find that domestic water supplies are metered in most of the rest of Europe and in North America and, for approximately 100 years, have been metered in Malvern, England. There is no evidence from any of those countries, or from Malvern, that public health or personal hygiene are in any way at risk where domestic water supplies are metered.

I say to the hon. Member for Acton that the cost of washing is not so high as to be a risk to public health. 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. There are—this may give some comfort to the hon. Member for Widnes —various methods whereby an entitlement to a basic supply of water for the reasonable demands of a family could be handled through a standing or even a token charge. Quantities in excess of that amount would be charged for by volume. That would provide for the supply of more than sufficient water to meet the reasonable demands of the ordinary family with the metering of excessive amounts which are wasteful to the country as a whole.

The second charge made by hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches is that the scope of and the need for economy in domestic consumption are negligible compared with those in industry. That point was made much of by the hon. Member for Widnes with his knowledge of the industries in that area. But he is not right on the facts. The need for sensible economy in industrial use is acknowledged on all sides. As water consumption is a cost on industry, industrialists for the most part are sensible about it.

On the facts, unmetered consumption, mainly by domestic users, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total water supplied by public undertakings. Therefore, even a small percentage saving on the future increase in use would be very valuable. The waste of water through leakage, washers and for a variety of reasons in the domestic sector is conventionally taken as approximately 15 per cent. This waste arises from filling a handbasin simply to wash one's hands, using two gallons or more to flush half a pint and from the fact that most of us tend to take our water for granted as something that just appears when we turn on the tap. We have to recognise that water is becoming too expensive to collect, transport, purify and distribute to be wantonly wasted or polluted in the manner to which we are accustomed.

The Bill does not simply require the installation of meters in all domestic premises within a short period of time. The capital cost of doing this would be extremely high. The technical difficulties of retro-fitting meters into the multi-occupation premises of many of our larger cities is probably beyond practical possibility. We are saying that the new regional water authorities, which will be responsible statutory bodies with an elected democratic majority, should themselves be able to determine whether, in the overall interest of their consumers and of the safeguarding of future water supplies it is right to go in for metering. It woud be entirely wrong, when we are passing through the House a major piece of water legislation, not to put into the Bill that discretionary and permissive power against the future in case the regional water authorities should decide that it is wise to use it.

I reject the scaremongering indulged in by hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches. I agree with what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire, that we are as yet at an early stage and it is wise to make this provision because otherwise we should not be doing our duty by the future consumers, many of them yet unborn.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

That was a lamentable explanation by the Under-Secretary of State of the most retrograde proposal in the Bill. I agree with with him that water is a luxury, but it should be available in plentiful supply. The hon. Gentleman argued that increase in capital costs may make it more difficult to collect and transport. I do not see why he should approach this subject in such a mean-minded way. The air we breathe and the water we drink traditionally have been available to our people in plentiful supply, and should remain so. A metering system will bear most heavily on those who should be encouraged to use water. They are the people who can least afford to pay on the basis of the water they use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) was right to say that we should not expect large families to pay because of the amount of water they use. Once that is allowed to happen, we shall have to have regard to their ability to pay—and once people are charged in such a way, if they cannot afford to pay there will have to be some mechanism to allow them to be supplied with water.

The Under-Secretary of State said that the course which might eventually be followed would mean that people would pay a nominal charge for a given amount of water and would pay by volume for any excess. If that sort of philosophy were allowed to play a part in our national life, the total amount of water used would have to be related to the number of children in a family. In other words, there would have to be a rationing system for water. That is what the Under-Secretary of State is now proposing. He is saying that every householder shall be given a certain amount of water as a ration, and that if he has the audacity to use more water he will have to pay for it. I thought that we had got beyond that type of mentality in this House, but apparently that is not so.

The hon. Gentleman tried to make fun of what Opposition Members said about nappies. He will be interested to know the section of the population that uses most water. By and large, it is the working-class family with children. It may be surprising news to him that working-class people wash and want to keep clean, and to keep their children clean.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman well knows that our average consumption of water is now about 50 gallons per head per day. In 25 years it will be about 100 gallons per day. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we are only half as clean now as we shall be in 25 years' time? The increased use of water is related to increasing standards of life and the use of water for many other basic domestic purposes.

Mr. Howell

That does not follow from the argument. Society as a whole is using more water, and it is the Government's job to see that water is available. The Minister gave us a vivid insight into the sort of family life to which he is accustomed. He instanced the family which used dishwashers, washing machines and waste disposal units, and which was in the habit of shampooing two cars. He appeared to regard that as the average family. A recent survey showed that people in my constituency have the least number of cars per family in the whole of Birmingham. The picture which the hon. Gentleman tried to paint was certainly not related to the average working-class family. All this is Tory theorising. Their philosophy is to make people pay for what they use. We are totally opposed to that philosophy.

I turn to the economic argument, mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). I take the opposite view to that which he put forward. I believe that we should not allow the supply of water to be turned into a completely managerial function. Such a course will give an incentive to management to sell the product that it produces. Our experience has shown that all the emphasis in gas and electricity boards is on selling. If people are appointed and given salaries to manage a commodity, their incentive will be aimed not at saving the commodity but at selling it. A great deal of money is spent in television advertising urging the public to buy electricity and gas because the people, who are involved want to sell them. At present local authorities have an incentive to obtain the greatest economic use of water, but if the proposals in the Bill were accepted the emphasis would be the other way.

This provision is in the Bill because the Government intend at some time to use it. Tory Members say that they want to alter the traditional pattern to enable people to pay for what they use. Our philosophy is that such a course is regressive, and we oppose it, on the ground that people should have a ready supply of water as of right. We also oppose this proposal because the capital cost will be enormous and will add to the cost of water. The capital cost of installing meters will be colossal, as will the cost of providing people to read the meters. I believe that already far too many meter readers call at houses. The West Midlands Gas Board supplies people with a card

on which they are expected to note their meter readings. They are expected to put the card in the window, so that if the gas meter reader cannot gain access to the house because the people are out at work, he can read the card through the window.

We are opposed to this proposal in principle, and wish to assert the absolute right of the domestic user to a plentiful supply of pure water. It is the Government's job to bring about that situation. This wretched proposal should be drowned at birth, which is what I hope the House will now do to it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 210, Noes 228.

Division No. 116.] AYES [5.10 p.m.
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Johnson, Walter (Derby, S.)
Archer, Peter (Rowley Regis) Edwards, William (Merioneth) Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Ashton, Joe Ellis, Tom Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen)
Atkinson, Norman Ewing, Harry Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, W.)
Barnes, Michael Faulds, Andrew Kaufman, Gerald
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Fisher, Mrs.Doris(B'ham,Ladywood) Kelley, Richard
Barnett, Joel (Heywood and Royton) Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Kerr, Russell
Baxter, William Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Kinnock, Neil
Beaney, Alan Foot, Michael Lambie, David
Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood Ford, Ben Lamborn, Harry
Bidwell, Sydney Forrester, John Lamond, James
Bishop, E. S. Freeson, Reginald Latham, Arthur
Blenkinsop, Arthur Galpern, Sir Myer Leadbitter, Ted
Boardman, H. (Leigh) Garrett. W. E. Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Booth, Albert Gilbert, Dr. John Leonard, Dick
Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur Ginsburg, David (Dewsbury) Lestor, Miss Joan
Bradley, Tom Goldlng, John Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Broughton, Sir Alfred Gourlay, Harry Lomas, Kenneth
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Grant, George (Morpeth) Loughlin, Charles
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Grant, John D. (Islington, E.) Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson
Callaghan, Rt. Hn. James Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. McBride, Nell
Campbell, I. (Dunbartonshire, W.) Hamilton, James (Bothwell) McCartney, Hugh.
Cant, R. B. Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) McElhone, Frank.
Carmichael, Nell Hamllng, William McGuire, Michael
Carter, Ray (Birmingh' m, Northfield) Hannan, William (G'gow, Maryhill) Machin, George
Carter-Jones, Lewis (Eccles) Hardy, Peter Mackie, John
Cocks, Michael (Bristol, S.) Harper, Joseph Mackintosh, John P.
Concannon, J. D. Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Maclennan, Robert.
Conlan, Bernard Hart, Rt. Hn. Judith McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Hattersley, Roy McNamara, J. Kevin
Cox, Thomas (Wandsworth, C.) Healey, Rt. Hn. Denis Mahon, Simon (Bottle)
Crawshaw, Richard Heffer, Eric S. Mallalleu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.)
Cunningham, G. (Islington, S.W.) Hooson, Emlyn Mardsen, F.
Cunningham, Dr. J. A. (Whitehaven) Horam, John Marshall, Dr.Edmund
Dalyell, Tam Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy
Davidson, Arthur Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Mayhew, Christoper
Davies, Denzil (Llanelly) Huckfieid, Leslie Meacher, Michael
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey) Mendelson, John
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Hughes, Mark (Durham) Mikardo, Ian
Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen, N.) Miller, Dr. M. S.
Deaklns, Eric Hughes, Roy (Newport) Milne, Edward
Dempsey, James Hunter, Adam Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen)
Doig, Peter Irvine, Rt. Hn. Sir Arthur (Edge Hill) Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)
Dormand, J. D. Janner, Greville Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Douglas, Dick (Stirlingshire, E.) Jay, Rt. Hn. Douglas Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Driberg, Tom Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Murray, Ronald King
Duffy, A. E P. Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechford) Oakes, Gordon
Dunnett, Jack John, Brynmor O'Halloran, Michael
Edelman, Maurice Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) O'Malley, Brian
Orme, Stanley Rose, Paul B. Tomney, Frank
Oswald, Thomas Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock) Tope, Graham
Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, Sutton) Rowlands, Ted Tuck, Raphael
Padley, Walter Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-under-Lyne) Urwin, T. W.
Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney) Varley, Eric G.
Pardoe, John Short, Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne) Wainwright, Edwin
Parker, John (Dagenham) Sillars, James Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Pendry, Tom Silverman, Jullus Wallace, George
Prentice, Rt. Hn. Reg. Skinner, Dennis Watkins, David
Prescott, John Small, William Weitzman, David
Price, William (Rugby) Spearing, Nigel Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Probert, Arthur Spriggs, Leslie White, James (Glasgow, Pollok)
Radice, Giles Steel, David Whitehead, Phillip
Reed, D. (Sedgefield) Stoddart, David (Swindon) Whitlock, William
Rees, Merlyn (Leeds, S.) Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Rhodes, Geoffrey Strang, Gavin Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R. Woof, Robert
Roberts,Rt.Hn.Goronwy (Caernarvon) Summerskill, Hn. Dr. Shirley TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Robertson, John (Paisley) Swain, Thomas Mr. James A. Dun and
Roderick, Caerwyn E. (Brc'n & R'dnor) Taverne, Dick Mr. Ernest G. Perry.
Rodgers, William (Stockton-on-Tees) Thomas,Rt.Hn.George (Cardiff,W.)
Adley, Robert Fry, Peter McAdden, Sir Stephen
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Galbraith, Hn. T. G. D. MacArthur, Ian
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Gibson-Watt, David McCrindle, R. A.
Atkins, Humphrey Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) McLaren, Martin
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.) McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest)
Baker, W. H. K. (Banff) Glyn, Dr. Alan Madel, David
Balniel, Rt. Hn. Lord Goodhart, Philip Maginnis, John E.
Barber, Rt. Hn. Anthony Goodhew, Victor Marples, Rt. Hn. Ernest
Batsford, Brian Gower, Raymond Marten, Nell
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Gray, Hamish Mather, Carol
Bell, Ronald Green, Alan Maude, Angus
Benyon, W. Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Mawby, Ray
Berry, Hn. Anthony Grylls, Michael Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
Biffen, John Gummer, J. Selwyn Meyer, Sir Anthony
Biggs-Davison, John Gurden, Harold Mills, Peter (Torrington)
Blaker, Peter Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.)
Boscawen, Hn. Robert Hall, John (Wycombe) Miscampbell, Norman
Bossom, Sir Clive Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)
Bowden, Andrew Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Moate, Roger
Bray, Ronald Hannam, John (Exeter) Money, Ernle
Brinton, Sir Tatton Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Monks, Mrs. Connle
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Haselhurst, Alan Monro, Hector
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Havers, Sir Michael Montgomery, Fergus
Buck, Antony Hayhoe Barney Morgan-Giles, Rear-Adm.
Burden, F. A. Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward Mudd, David
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Hicks, Robert Murton, Oscar
Campbell, Rt.Hn.G.(Moray & Nairn) Higgins, Terence L. Nabarro, Sir Gerald
Chapman, Sydney Hiley, Joseph Nicholls, Sir Harnnar
Chataway. Rt. Hn. Christopher Hill, John E. B. (Norfolk, S.) Noble Rt. Hn. Michael
Churchill, W. S. Holland, Philip Normanton, Tom
Clark, William (Surrey, E.) Holt, Miss Mary Nott, John
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hornby, Richard Onslow, Cranley
Clegg, Walter Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hn. Dame Patricia Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Cockeram, Eric Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.) Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)
Cooke, Robert Hunt, John Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Coombs, Derek Hutchison, Michael Clark Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Cordle, John Iremonger, T. L. Parkinson, Cecil
Corfield, Rt. Hn. Sir Frederick James, David Percival, Ian
Costain, A. P. Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Peyton, Rt. Hn. John
Crouch, David Jessel, Toby Pink, R. Bonner
Davies, Rt. Hn. John (Knutsford) Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
d'Avigdor-Goldsmld, Sir Henry Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.) Price, David (Eastleigh)
d'Avigdor-Goldsmld,Maj.-Gen.Jack Jopling, Michael Prior, Rt. Hn. J. M. L.
Dixon, Piers Kaberry, Sir Donald Proudfoot, Wilfred
Drayson, G. B. Kellett-Bowman, Mrs. Elaine Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
Dykes, Hugh Kershaw, Anthony Quennell, Miss J. M.
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Kimball Marcus Raison, Timothy
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) King Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne,N.) King, Tom (Bridgwater) Redmond, Robert
Emery, Peter Kinsey J. R. Reed, Laurence (Bolton, E.)
Farr, John Kitson, Timothy Rees, Peter (Dover)
Fell, Anthony Knox, David Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Fenner, Mrs. Peggy Lambton, Lord Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Fidler, Michael Lamont, Norman Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Lane, David Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Le Merchant, Spencer Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, N.)
Fookes Miss Janet Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Fortescue, Tim Longden, Sir Gilbert Rost, Peter
Fowler, Norman Loveridge, John Russell, Sir Ronald
Fraser,Rt.Hn.Hugh(Stafford & Stone) Luce, R. N. St. John-Stevas, Norman
Scott-Hopkins, James Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne) Ward, Dame Irene
Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby) Taylor,Edward M.(G'gow,Cathcart) Warren, Kenneth
Shelton, William (Clapham) Taylor, Frank (Moss Side) Weatherill, Bernard
Shersby, Michael Taylor, Robert (Croydon, N.W.) White, Roger (Grayesend)
Simeons, Charles Tebbit, Norman Wiggin, Jerry
Sinclair, Sir George Temple, John M. Wilkinson, John
Skeet, T. H. H. Thatcher, Rt. Hn. Mrs. Margaret Winterton, Nicholas
Soref, Harold Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth) Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Spence, John Thomas, Rt. Hn. Peter (Hendon, S.) Wood, Rt. Hn Richard
Sproat, lain Trafford, Dr. Anthony Woodnutt, Mark
Stanbrook, Ivor Trew, Peter Worsley, Marcus
Stewart-Smith, Geoffrey (Belper) Tugendhat, Christopher Wylle, Rt. Hn. N. R.
Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M. Turton, Rt. Hn. Sir Robin Younger, Hn. George
Stokes, John Vickers, Dame Joan
Stuttaford, Dr. Tom Waddington, David TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Sutcliffe, John Walker, Rt. Hn. Peter (Worcester) Mr. Paul Hawkins and
Tapsell, Peter Walters, Dennis Mr. Marcus Fox.

Amendment accordingly negatived.

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