HC Deb 19 July 1974 vol 877 cc952-62
Mr. Rossi

I beg to move Amendment No. 89, in page 18, line 55, at end insert: '; and any charges which are payable under this subsection in respect of a cesspool shall be paid by the water authority in whose area the cesspool is situated'. The intention of the amendment is to give water authorities the power to pay to local authorities the charges or expenses incurred by those local authorities in emptying cesspools belonging to private individuals. The reason for the amendment is as follows.

At present it appears that it is possible for persons not connected to a main sewer and who have their own cesspools to be charged twice over. They are charged first by the water authority in respect of a sewerage and drainage rate. This year that has been considerable in many areas and has caused a good deal of anxiety. At the same time those people who are paying the drainage charge when they are not connected to the main sewerage system—and who feel that they are paying for a service from which they do not directly benefit—feel that insult is added to injury when the local authority comes along and makes yet another charge for emptying their cesspools.

At the moment there is no way out of that difficulty without legislation. The water authorities have to charge the drainage rate on all properties in the country. Local authorities have the power, and they frequently exercise it, to charge for emptying cesspools, otherwise that would be a burden on the ratepayers generally.

In Committee the Minister was good enough to say that he would look into the question of whether it was right that such people should have to pay a charge to the water authorities. He said it was not something which could be put right in the immediate future, certainly not this year, because, curiously enough, there was the administrative difficulty of identifying the 1 million people throughout the country who were in this predicament.

3.15 p.m.

Therefore, although relief might be given to those people against the sewerage and drainage rate in another year, it cannot be given in this financial year. However, what can be done is to relieve them of the burden of having to pay the extra charge to have their cesspools emptied by the local authorities. That can be done simply by treating the local authorities as acting as the agents for the water authorities in emptying the cesspools, and making their charge not to the individual whose cesspools they have emptied but to the water authority.

I believe that there will be no problem once Parliament gives the necessary powers for the payment to be made from one authority to the other. I believe that there is sufficient revenue in most water authorities this year to meet that payment. The Minister shakes his head. We on the Opposition benches have made inquiries to see what measure of relief could be given. From those inquiries, which we made at a very high level because we are anxious about the problem, we are satisfied that this could be done if the Government were prepared to accept the necessary amendment to the Bill. We canvassed the matter in Committee, where the Minister said that he would consider it very sympathetically.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the new water authorities are held up on their main water and sewerage contracts because of lack of finance?

Mr. Rossi

I can only repeat what I have been told. I do not know all the ins and outs of the authorities' finances, but I have been told that this is a matter with which they can deal in the present situation. Therefore, it struck me as a simple remedy and a just way of dealing with the problem.

I hope that the amendment will recommend itself to the House as a means of bringing immediate relief to the people concerned so that they do not have to pay a double charge.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to the amendment. I come from a rural constituency where many of my constituents are not on main drainage and where, for the first time, their sewerage charge has been excessive and has caused an enormous outcry. West Derbyshire is no different from many other rural areas. The fact that the people concerned have to pay a separate charge for the emptying of their cesspools when for the first time they have had a sewage disposal charge identified in their rate demand has caused enormous unrest and bad feeling throughout my part of the world.

I do not wish to take up time with an emotive speech about how hard-done-by my constituents are, but I hope that the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) will be heard with sympathy by the Minister, and that there will be some form of relief—perhaps only for an interim period, until the new water authorities have been able to work out a system for having a smaller charge for those who are not connected to main sewerage. I hope that the Minister will find a means to alleviate what my constituents and I consider to be a grossly unjust charge.

Mr. Denis Howell

I voted against the Water Act 1973, and I have said that as a result of the pressures to put it on the statute book with great haste it was ill-considered. Having undertaken to meet the point for next year, I do not think that I can be accused of any lack of sympathy, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) wished to accuse me of that.

I believe that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) said that the sewerage charge was an extra charge. It is not. It is a charge which people have been paying for years. The fact is that they did not realise that. We now have to deal with the situation.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Although the charge has been there, it has been hidden in the general rate demand. Now it is identifiable, and this year it has increased enormously in nearly every area. That is why there is unrest.

Mr. Howell

I agree that ratepayers are up in arms because of the new administrative costs the previous Government imposed on them, not only under the Water Act but as a result of local government reorganisation. Every ratepayer now has. to pay for two treasurers where he had one before and for two planning departments where he had one before. We predicted all this. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman's ratepayers are up in arms, although I am sorry about it. We shall deal with the mess as soon as we can, but we cannot do it the day after we come to power, which is what we are being asked to do. One presumes that the National Water Council was established so that it could be consulted on matters of this kind. It is hardly credible that we should put an amendment of this sort in a Bill before we have had the advice of the council. I sought that advice as a matter of urgency. The council promised to give me advice on how to deal with these unfortunate householders within three months. I can assure the House that as soon as I have that advice I shall try to put it in a sensible form and ensure that it applies for next year.

I am not sure that the amendment would help any more speedily than the Government intend to act, because the Bill cannot operate before 1st April next year. I have already given an undertaking that I intend to deal with the matter before then by introducing our own proposals. We have asked the National Water Council to tell us, as a matter of urgency, how it proposes to deal with the complex issue involved.

I must take issue with the hon. Member for Hornsey who says that he has been told at a high level that the water industry would find it possible to take on this task this year. I must tell him that that is not what the industry is telling me. I cannot believe that the high-level people to whom he is talking are saying one thing to the Opposition and something different to the Government. When my right hon. Friend and I met the Chairman of the National Water Council and when we met all the regional chairmen we pressed them strongly and asked them how far they could go, bearing in mind that people are now paying for a service that they do not get. We would have liked to do something immediately had we been able to do so. They made it clear to us for various reasons that they would have to consider the matter.

I shall give the hon. House some examples of the complexities. In many instances, for example, people have chosen not to connect their premises with the main sewerage system although the system is provided and a connection could be made.

Mr. Ralph Howell


Mr. Denis Howell

Perhaps that does apply in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world, but in many parts that happens to be the position. I cannot legislate for Norfolk, North alone. I have to have regard to the effect of legislation throughout the country. What do we do about the man who has these community services available and will not use them?

Then there is the question of payments. Sewage disposal payments vary widely throughout the country. Payments in Wales, for many reasons, are often higher than in other areas. That variation applies regionally throughout the country. The median charge for the average house is about 6½p in the pound or, roughly speaking, about £13 per year. I think that the House will agree that we get a good service for that sort of charge. We must bear in mind that cesspools need emptying frequently and we must relate the charge of f13 to the need to empty a cesspool at least once a month. Some cesspools require emptying more than once a month. Some areas require the emptying of cesspools twice and three times a month depending on the use, the size and other factors. The National Water Council has to think about that.

If we are to give the obligation to the local authority to carry out this task and charge the water authorities, how shall we deal with the variation of requirements in rural areas? That is a difficult matter and not one on which it is possible without some thought, to lay down a hard and fast scheme.

The hon. Member for Hornsey said that the intention was to give the water authorities the power to pay local authorities. I have no doubt that he will appreciate that the amendment makes that obligatory. It is not in any way accepted for that reason. The order imposes a poundage sewerage charge on all properties, and it applies, as the House will know, only for 1974 and 1975. It would be difficult in such an order to exclude people who cannot connect next year. Because of the complexities of legislation, I am bound to end up by advising the House that it is not possible to accept the amendment.

I hope that the House and everyone concerned will accept my categoric assurance, which I have now given on several occasions, that the Government are acting with every possible urgency. We intend to deal with this matter for next year, but on practical grounds it is not possible to take it aboard during the current financial year for all the reasons that I have given.

I regret to say this, but water authorities tell us that by the end of the year they are all likely to be in deficit. Therefore, it is not correct to say that money would be available for use in the way suggested by the hon. Member.

I am sorry that I cannot accept the amendment to deal with this unfortunate matter this year, but I assure everyone concerned that the Government have every intention to deal with it for next year and for the future thereafter.

Mr. Ralph Howell

I am deeply disappointed that the Minister has adopted such a negative attitude to the amendment. I thought he would give genuine and sympathetic consideration to the solution I presented to him in Committee. To dismiss it in the way he has dismissed it today is disappointing. Not only the Government but the House would score if common sense prevailed and the amendment were accepted.

The argument that this has always occurred is a poor one. People in rural areas such as mine now realise that they have for years been paying double for something they were not getting. That is no reason why the situation should continue. It could be rectified simply by accepting the amendment.

The argument that the Bill will not come into operation before April next year and that therefore nothing can be done about this matter until then is very weak. Even accepting that nothing can be done before April—and I do not accept it; I think that something exceptional could be done if there were the will—if this proposal were accepted people in my area and elsewhere who are paying twice would have the assurance that something would be done about it, next April.

Mr. Denis Howell

I have given that assurance.

Mr. Ralph Howell

I therefore urge the Minister to reconsider what he has said.

It has been argued that the water authorities are not in a financial position to do what we suggest. The Anglian Water Authority, which covers my constituency, proposed to spend £40,000 on improving its image. A public relations exercise was to be mounted. However, I read recently that due to considerable pressure, the figure has been reduced to £20,000. The operation and expenditure of such water authorities should be considered seriously.

If the Minister would reconsider the stance he has taken on the amendment, it would he to the credit of the Government and the House.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I have great sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell), but it is not right for him to say that people have been paying twice over. Their rateable assessments are less because their properties are not on main services, and that should be made abundantly clear.

I too have a septic tank on my property and I do not object to contributing to the general sewerage rate. I agree that the position should be brought home to people and that something should be done about it. Most water authorities are very short of money; they lost £130 million over the transfer of responsibilities.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Rossi

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell). I share his disappointment at the answer we have received from the Minister of State. We accept the difficulties regarding the question of the sewerage and drainage charge and how this can be most equitably dealt with for people who are not connected to services. I recognise the problems, which the hon. Gentleman has indicated, where some people could be connected but do not wish to be. Matters of this kind all have to be investigated, and it will take a certain amount of time.

But the Government are in the saddle now and they have the power and the means to give relief if they are so minded. I had understood that the water authorities would be in a position to do so, but information has now been given to us that perhaps the information I received was mistaken. The matter still lies with the Government, however. They can still help in the circumstances if they wish, and they can do so this year. One way of dealing with the matter would be to make funds available from Government sources to water authorities to meet this charge.

Will the Minister of State in the next day or so have talks with the National Water Council? He says that his Department is in contact with the council and, of course, the Chairman is frequently in the other place only a few yards away from this House. The Minister might be able to discuss with the chairman ways in which a solution can be found, as I believe it can be, this year, not to the overall question of the sewerage and drainage rate, which is another matter, but to the charge which has to be paid this year for the cleaning and emptying of cesspools. This would be a widely welcomed gesture by the Government.

If the amendment would not be as effective as it might otherwise be because of the date of operation of the Bill, it is always possible in another place to insert a new clause stating that a particular part of the Bill shall come into operation at an earlier date than the main part. That is frequently done. Where there is a will there is a way.

I am making no carping criticism of the Minister because I know that he has been trying within the limits of his brief to deal with the matter urgently, and he feels that he is unable to do anything before next year. I ask him, however, to have the conversations I have suggested in a spirit of desire to help this year if at all possible. If, as a result of those discussions, he perhaps finds it easier to do what is suggested than he now thinks no doubt he will take action. I ask the hon. Gentleman for no more than an assurance that he will take this further step within the next few days.

Mr. Denis Howell

Naturally I wanted to do it this year. if I could, I would. I am always ready to rectify the mistakes of the Conservative Party and to do so as quickly as I can. The difficulty in which the Opposition now find themselves is that they voted for that piece of nonsense, the Water Act 1973. We voted against it and warned the House and the country what its consequences would be. The subject we are now discussing is one of the smaller matters which have arisen from the operation of the Act.

The Opposition are now pressing me because they have to react to the considerable pressures they are facing from their ratepayers, not only on this matter but over the whole range of local government reorganisation, which is proving so expensive to ratepayers as a whole.

Apart from the difficulties we have already encountered, there is one other patent absurdity from the point of view of equity that would arise from the amendment. It would enable cesspool owners to be free of any charge for sewerage because, while the local authority would not be providing the service, the owners would still be entitled to require the water authorities—the rest of us—at our expense to empty their cesspools as frequently as they would like and without any charge being levied.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) dealt with this matter and there was mention of double charging. The question is not as simple as that. Septic tanks and cesspools must be emptied, and if they are treated what is the proper amount of money to be charged? Furthermore, such householders can obtain other advantages from the sewerage services. Certainly, great difficulties might well arise in terms of the public health situation if these services did not exist. It is a matter of great complexity and we cannot at a stroke exempt a large number of people from the charge.

I shall do all I can to assist the situation. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight mentioned one water authority which had spent a good deal of money on public relations. If he goes on campaigning in that way, a figure of £20,000 will not be enough for that authority to correct the unfortunate information which lie has given to the House. I am concerned over the question of the high salaries paid in many of the water authorities and the large motor cars which are available for official use. None of these matters was sanctioned during our tour of office. They come within the responsibility of the former Conservative Government. We shall look at the matter as soon as we can and take what action we consider to be necessary.

I sympathise with what has been said and the difficulties that have been outlined, but I have given assurances that the matter will be dealt with in the next financial year. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will feel that they will receive more sympathetic treatment of their grievances under a Labour Government than was the case under the previous Conservative administration.

Mr. Ralph Howell

I am sure the Minister well knows that I was pressing for free emptying of tanks and not an ad lib arrangement. That was certainly the matter that I pressed in Committee.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 13, in page 19, line 4, after 'pipes', insert 'and associated works'.

No. 14, in page 19, line 7, after first 'pipes' insert ' or associated works'.

No. 15, in page 19, leave out lines 10 to 13 and insert—

(6A) Parts V and VI of Schedule 3 to the Water Act 1945 (which relate to the laying of mains and the breaking up of streets) shall apply in relation to pipes and associated works provided or to be provided in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the preceding subsection as those Parts apply in relation to water mains and pipes but as if—

  1. (a) sections 19(4) and 21 of that Schedule (which relate to the erection of street notices and the laying of service pipes) were omitted, and in section 22 of that Schedule the words "which they are authorised to lay" were omitted; and
  2. (b) for any reference to undertakers or limits of supply there were substituted respectively a reference to the authority in question and the area of the authority; and
  3. (c) for the reference to the Special Act in section 25(4) of that Schedule there were substituted a reference to this subsection;
and the Pipelines Act 1962 shall not apply to pipes or associated works provided or to be provided in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the preceding subsection.'

No. 16, in page 19, line 33, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

'(b) for subsection (6A) there shall be substituted the following subsection:— (6A) Sections 2, 3, 4 and 41 of the Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968 (which relate to the maintenance etc. of public sewers and other works and the breaking open of streets etc.) shall apply in relation to pipes and associated works provided or to be provided in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the preceding subsection as those sections apply in relation to public sewers but as if—

  1. (a) the said section 2, conferred a power, and did not impose a duty, on a local authority to do the things mentioned in that section; and
  2. (b) in the said section 4, the words from "but, before any person" to the end were omitted; and the Pipe-lines Act 1962 shall not apply to pipes and associated works provided or to be provided in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the preceding subsection".'

No. 17, in page 19, line 43, after 'Crown', insert 'but exclude waste as to which the Commissioners executing the Crown Estate Paving Act 1851 (which among other things relates to premises in the Regent's Park) make arrangements for its collection'.—[Mr. Denis Howell.]

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