HC Deb 24 July 1974 vol 877 cc1578-81
8. Dr. Hampson

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what financial help he intends to give to local authorities to compensate them for loss of income once relief from sewerage rates is granted to households not connected to a public sewer.

9. Mr. Dixon

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the statements on 15th May by the Minister of State and on 3rd July by the Under-Secretary of State on the subject, he will make a further statement about his policy on sewerage rates.

20. Mr. Hurd

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet received the report which he requested from the National Water Council on providing relief from sewerage charges for households without mains drainage.

21. Mr. Newton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet formulated proposals for relieving households without mains drainage from the payment of sewerage rates; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Oakes

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State told the House on 3rd July, my right hon. Friend has asked the National Water Council for urgent advice about the various aspects of sewerage charges for premises not connected to the public sewers. I understand that the council is making very good progress in its study of this problem.

Dr. Hampson

Does the hon. Gentleman now accept that the £150 million is being paid retrospectively to make adjustments because the Government would not listen in the first place to suggestions by the Opposition proposing precisely what they are now doing? Will he say whether the money will be distributed under two heads, both the general rate and the water and sewerage rate? In this way, those not on water services, for example, would not get a rebate to which they would not otherwise be entitled while at the same time those with septic tanks could be given special relief. Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman guarantee—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate these matters again. The Minister must now answer the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question.

Mr. Oakes

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the iniquity of the situation arises from legislation introduced by the Conservative Government which we are busily trying to unscramble. I reinforce what my right hon. Friend has told the House already. Sewerage charges are included in the £150 million and their increase will be included in the percentage. With regard to cesspits, the difficulty is that water authorities have no power to incur or to reimburse the expenditure on that function because of the Conservative Government's legislation. It would require further legislation to deal with the matter, and the National Water Council is looking into it.

Mr. Dixon

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that we on this side, and no doubt some of his hon. Friends, have always seen in him someone who is sympathetic to this problem? Does he not find it embarrassing that he gives statements which contradict those of some of his ministerial collegues on this point?

Mr. Oakes

I have not known of any contradiction on this matter. I am sympathetic to the problem and I repeat that it is iniquitous that someone not receiving sewerage service should have to pay a charge. We inherited that situation and we are endeavouring to unscramble the egg.

Mr. Edge

Is my hon. Friend aware that while many hon. Members on the Government side welcome the removal of the ludicrous anomaly introduced by the Conservative Government whereby people pay for services they never receive, there is nevertheless an urgent need to ensure that money is available for water and sewerage services so that vital housing programmes which have been neglected during the past three years can go ahead?

Mr. Oakes

That raises another matter. However, I remind my hon. Friend of the cuts imposed last December which had a serious effect on this matter. With regard to the need for urgency, we are hoping that the report of the National Water Council should be available at least by early autumn.

Mr. Hurd

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the anomaly he is dealing with has nothing to do with the Water Act and has existed for a long time under Governments of different complexions? Will he seriously consider going for self-assessment in this respect, bearing in mind that he is dealing overwhelmingly with villages with no sewerage services? Does he not agree that it would be better to have a rough-and-ready system which will work from next year rather than a perfect system for which we may have to wait for three or four years?

Mr. Oakes

We hope to have a system which will work from next year. That is the reason for the urgency of the inquiry at present. It is true that this problem has existed for decades, but it is now at a much more intense level because of increases in charges and other factors. I would have thought that the last Water Act which reformed water services would have been the very means by which to have put the matter right, but it was not put right.

Mr. Woodall

Does not my hon. Friend agree that a house which is not connected to a public sewer is usually given a lower rateable value than one which is connected, in order to compensate for the deficiency?

Mr. Oakes

I am afraid that with the vagaries of the valuation and rating system that is not always so.

Mr. Rossi

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's statement that legislation would be required to enable water authorities to pay for the emptying of individual cesspits instead of leaving it to the owner to pay the local authority, will he not admit frankly to the House that the Government had the opportunity to put that matter right in the Control of Pollution Bill both in Committee and on Report, when amendments were moved to that effect, but that the Government steadfastly set their face against giving such relief?

Mr. Oakes

The Control of Pollution Bill involved a different matter from that which we are concerned with here. As I understand it, district councils have power under the Public Health Act 1936 but water authorities have no power to incur or reimburse expenditure on this function. This matter would require legislation, possibly a one-clause Bill. I am sure that at the earliest possible time after we receive the report from the National Water Council the Government will introduce legislation if required.

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