HC Deb 06 August 1976 vol 916 cc2328-40

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

12.59 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Cesspools hardly sound a dramatic and delightful subject, but I think that I can show that consideration of the subject is certainly justified. Up to 2½ million people reside in properties in England and Wales that are not connected to sewers. Most of them are affected by the quite unsatisfactory arrangements that now apply.

The present situation has been brought about by the reorganisation of both local government and the water authorities, followed by the decision of the House of Lords in its judicial capacity on what was not the only recent case in which what may be good law has largely regrettable consequences. I know that many people, including one ratepayers' association in my constituency, believed that the Daymond judgment was a triumph for the individual over bureaucracy but they are silent now that the effect of the decision has been revealed. Certainly there are hundreds of people in my constituency who have come to realise in the last few weeks that the situation could become quite dreadful.

I know that there are people who believe that the present situation is not undeserved, and indeed a few of my constituents demanded that since their properties ate not connected, they should not pay rates for their sewage disposal, but they overlooked the fact that cesspools or septic tanks have to be emptied and this could be very expensive. This service has to be paid for, too.

In my area until recently our local authorities carried out the service quietly and efficiently. I never received a complaint about it. However, in its wisdom, if that is the right word, the previous administration changed the responsibilities and now my constituency is served by two water authorities. The local metropolitan district authority, Rotherham Borough Council, has to make substantial payments to these authorities for the disposal of the sewage it collects. The Yorkshire Water Authority charges my council £4 per 1,000 gallons—the second highest rate in the country—while the Severn-Trent Water Authority charges £3.

The council probably incurs very much greater cost. It has to send out its tankers and its capable and cheerful staff to empty the cesspools at the unconnected properties, and the council believes that the cost will approach about £40,000 a year, in addition to the £25,000 or so that it will have to pay to the water authorities. Therefore, if it were to cover the cost the council would need to charge at least £10 per 1,000 gallons collected.

I wrote to the chairmen of both the Severn-Trent and Yorkshire Water Authorities to ask whether they would reconsider their severe charges. The Chairman of the Yorkshire Water Authority replied quite promptly defending the authority's decision and presenting the case for it. The Chairman of the Severn-Trent Authority has not yet replied, nor have I had even an acknowledgement. This reveals a quite unacceptable attitude. These water authorities are too remote from democratic control.

I do not believe that Members of Parliament should behave arrogantly, but we are entitled to cut up rough if our requests, sensible and reasonable requests, are ignored. I hope that the Chairman of the Severn-Trent Authority will reply to my letter soon. If not, after the recess I shall suggest to my right hon. Friend that his dismissal or resignation is warranted. These bodies can impose high charges and escape criticism, for it is the local elected councils that have to collect the money on their behalf and incur the odium.

My council was informed of these charges some time ago and has spent the intervening weeks in some distress examining the situation and trying to find ways of resolving the problem, because it recognises that the effect could be very severe indeed. To urban man, perhaps to civil servants, perhaps to chairmen of water authorities, but I know not to my right hon. Friend, these charges may not sound dramatic, but they are well over any figure of moderation that I can think of and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will appreciate that ordinary folk cannot bear indefinite burdens.

If the average person in an unconnected property uses a relatively small amount of water, say 25 gallons per day, he will consume 9,000 gallons a year, which means that my local authority will incur considerable costs and will have to pay for those 9,000 gallons £36 to the Yorkshire Water Authority and incur costs directly itself of £54. With that low level on consumption the cost to the individual would be £90 a year, or £1.75 a week. That is what the authorities in my part of the country fear would have to be charged. It would mean that a household of two persons could expect to pay £180 a year, while a family of four would pay £360, or £7 a week for the emptying of cesspits. The Minister will appreciate that if the family has babies or young children the consumption of water will be very much higher, and therefore the costs will be even steeper.

There are families in my constituency who could face a weekly bill of £10 every week throughout the year, and relatively few people in my constituency can afford that sort of charge. In the Rotherham borough there are 780 properties that are not connected to the sewers, the vast majority of them in the Rother Valley. Of those, 324 have rateable values of less than £100, so that the bulk of the occupants in such properties are not wealthy people, but are on average or below average incomes, and literally many of them cannot afford the heavy burden that may be imposed on them by foolish legislation and legal insensitivity.

My local council has been criticised for announcing the charges that it envisages as being necessary. However, the criticism is most unfair, since the council is seeking to find a way out of the present position. The council recognises the anguish and the scale of the anguish involved, and for this reason it voluntarily —indeed, eagerly—decided that if it was to charge £10 per 1,000 gallons it would extend the rate rebate arrangements to these charges.

However, that would involve the council in extra costs, since even if it rebated the charge required by the water authorities those bodies would still require full payment in accordance with the terms of the 1973 Act. The rebate is welcome and will help, but it will still mean a severe burden for some of the worst-off people in my constituency, and others who are just over the rebate level will still be in an impossible situation.

Some of my constituents have been made sick with anxiety. Let me give a couple of examples. Yesterday I met one family of two adults and two children. They have a net income of about £42 a week. They do not qualify for rebate, but can anyone possibly expect them to pay £8 a week for their cesspit to be emptied? The second case is that of a retired couple, he with a small occupational pension which takes them just over supplementary benefit and rebate level. How are they to find £4 a week for cesspool emptying? They would be very reluctant to seek help if it were available, for they are proudly independent, and the recent publicity in the cheaper newspapers conveys to them the impression that social security is only for the dodger and the layabout. Some hon. Members really ought to know better.

The new commitment is frightening. Honest folk, the majority, are anxious about their commitments. They wish to continue to live in acceptance of responsibility, and therefore they ask whether they should sign that they will pay for their cesspits to be emptied when they cannot be sure that they will be able to pay, or do they refuse and watch their cesspools overflow? Can society or their neighbours bear that? Can the local authority be expected to take stern action against ordinary decent people placed in this intolerable situation, not by the council, but by the previous Government and the other place?

At the same time, can society allow any risk to public health to develop? Will the Minister comment on the possibility that these individuals may seek to try do-it-yourself cesspool emptying? If they do, where are they to dispose of the sewage? There is a likelihood of court action against otherwise quite responsible individuals.

In the same vein, can the Minister be certain that we shall not have irresponsible private commercial operations that can undercut the local authority and avoid legitimate disposal to the water authority? The sorely hurt individual cesspool owner may feel obliged to use such operators, but the community as a whole may then be in hazard unless local authorities are particularly vigilant.

I welcome the Government's action in publishing proposals in the consultative document on the water industry. Within this commendable document lies the basis for a sensible future. However, a good deal will have to be done to implement these proposals, and I suspect that the comprehensive legislation that would be required could not be enacted before 1978 or 1979. That is too far away to comfort those with whom we are concerned today. Their plight commands a much more urgent attitude.

We need to return urgently to the preDaymond situation. The emptying of cesspools and septic tanks is essential and and should be regarded as just as much a local authority service as the emptying of dustbins, the maintenance of roads, the provision of public education, the employment of environmental health officers, and so on. That view is logical and eminently appropriate, and therefore I consider that this should be a rate-borne service once again, and the sooner the better.

That is the main point of my argument, and I urge my right hon. Friend to make it clear that the Government agree with that proposition and that they intend to make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give the House some idea of the date when he hopes the change will be effective. If he cannot agree to the particular change that I have proposed, I hope that he can offer an alternative that will not compound the distress of my constituents.

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised that I have one or two other questions. The first arises from conversations that I had with constituents yesterday in the parish of Wentworth. I found three cottages served by one cesspool. Who is to decide on the proportion of the cost to be borne, given families of different sizes and needs in the three households? What is to happen if two of the three families agree to pay but the third refuses when the cesspool is full?

My constituents may not be qualified to sit on the Judicial Committee of the other place, but they can perceive a problem of this kind with greater clarity. I have given advice on many difficult and different matters, but I should welcome my hon. Friend's suggestion on this one which involves complex human relationships, which are often very complex indeed in some of the more remote areas.

The water authorities may be rather removed from this sort of problem and may shelter behind their responsibility for avoiding loss. However, I would urge my right hon. Friend to suggest to the water authorities that they should not only keep Members of Parliament informed but realise that they do not have to make a profit out of every single operation and certainly not by the oppression of rural England.

At the same time that he gives this advice to the water authorities, I would hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider his advice to local authorities and suggest that they reduce charges to the minimum possible within their own financial situations. I know that in my own case the Rotherham Borough Council has no desire whatever to make any profit out of this charge, but some authorities might be tempted to do so. People should realise that in the towns and cities of Britain people may be able to visit a public convenience for a penny but that in some rural areas, in the present situation, the cost of using the toilet is now 2p and, indeed, if a person washes his hands afterwards, the price is increased.

My right hon. Friend will, of course, share my wry sentiments about this whole story. It is often held that the Labour Party is concerned with urban rather than rural England. Yet here we are again with a Labour Government having to retrieve a situation and retrieve a rural problem not of its making. Unless it does so, the previous Conservative Government, and the Law Lords together will have struck a savage blow at the country dweller. I know that some of my constituents are about to apply for council tenancies to avoid the intolerable position in which they are now placed. Rural depopulation is not at all to be desired.

I am confident that the Government will restore justice and maintain the just record of equitable treatment for all people in this country. In that case my right hon. Friend may note that during the last 50 to 60 years there have been 24 Acts of Parliament of particular benefit to the dweller in rural Britain Labour Government have been in power for only one quarter of that period but are responsible for 16 of those Acts. My right hon. Friend can keep up this record by ensuring that this ridiculous situation is resolved and thus help hammer home the fact that rural Britain owes very little to the Conservative Party, certainly not in this century.

There are two further and important problems upon which I should like my right hon. Friend's comments. One concerns the maintenance of public health, to which I have already referred. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether since this situation arose, he has sought further consultations with the medical experts to ensure that there is no new real risk to the community, and certainly to rural villages which are particularly affected?

Secondly, the Daymond judgment has the effect, perhaps not looked for at the time, that cesspool emptying has become a commercial rather than a rate-borne service. As such it became subject to the imposition of VAT. We do not pay VAT for our dustbins to be emptied, nor for the treatment of sewage when properties are connected to the main drains, and we should not expect VAT to apply in this case. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree to make representations to the Treasury with a view to removing this burden. If no action can be taken quickly, I hope that he will do so before the next Finance Bill comes before the House.

My right hon. Friend will realise that he has much sympathy among his colleagues, particularly among those of us who are interested in matters concerning the environment and those of us who represent areas and constituencies where there are people living in rather remote circumstances. Those of use who were in the House from 1970 to 1974 will reffect with commiseration upon my right hon. Friend's position. Speaking from the Opposition Dispatch Box at that time he subjected the Conservative Government's proposals to shrewd criticism and applied a sensible understanding to the propositions before the House. It is a great pity that he was not listened to more carefully at that time.

His experience then means that he will be even more aware than any other Member—certainly more than I am—of the imperfections of the Water Act and the related legislation which the House passed at that time. Given his understanding and experience, I am sure that he will not need me to say more about the problem, and I hope that he will ensure that the necessary action is taken without much delay.

1.16 p.m.

The Minister of State for Sport and Recreation (Mr. Denis Howell)

I am indeed grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind personal reference and for his most constructive approach to the problem that he has set before the House. He is absolutely right that when this legislation came before the House it was my responsibility from the other side of the Chamber to draw attention to the very considerable shortcomings in the legislation and to what we believed would be the effect upon the public of this country of the reorganisation of water supplies, particularly coming, as it did, close upon the heels of the reorganisation of local government. As I have said before, the tremendously increasing costs of local government services and water services as a result of increasing the bureaucracies and the general wholesale nature of the reorganisation was entirely predictable.

My hon. Friend is quite right in pointing out that we tried to get the House to reject the proposals at the time, but, alas, we were not listened to. I am therefore glad that I have my hon. Friend's sympathy in having to try to deal with the ensuing situation. As far as the regional water authorities are concerned, I would say that we have always accepted, and we did at the time, that the hydrological basin approach to water was correct. It was the structure and and the bureaucratic control about which we were extremely doubtful. But it is right that water should be dealt with on the hydrological basin principle or the river basin principle and that one authority ought to be responsible for providing water and cleaning it and dispensing it back into the river system of this country.

I am delighted to have heard Mr. Deputy Speaker announce that Her Majesty has given the Royal Assent this morning to the Drought Act which is so badly needed and which will cause my Department and Ministers to work throughout the summer to deal with the emergency proposals which will now be forthcoming as a result of that legislation. All this emphasises the vital importance of water to the nation and the fact that we take the supply of it too much for granted.

If that can be said about water, to what extent can it be said that we take for granted the disposal of our waste water? It is nice for most people to reflect that when they pull out the plug or pull the chain, someone somewhere must deal with the consequences of that action.

Because of the difficulties, the Government have had to return much earlier than they thought they would need to do to the reorganisational and structural problems in the industry. Following the consultation document which we circulated at the beginning of the year, some people have written in saying "Good heavens, another reorganisation. What are the Government doing? This is much too soon. Let matters settle down". My hon. Friend will appreciate that we issued the further consultation document because we were sure that matters would not settle down and that in many respects they were extremely unsatisfactory. In particular, we must establish a strong national water authority responsible for drawing up a national strategy for water and asking the regional water authorities to relate to that strategy.

Although I am, and have been, critical of much of the structure, I should like to take this opportunity of putting on record that the regional water authorities are doing a first-class job in a difficult situation, particularly in the drought areas. I have talked to them many times about the importance of their public relations and, in particular, their relationships with hon. Members. I was therefore particularly surprised to hear what my hon. Friend said about his failure to get an acknowledgment or reply from the Severn-Trent Water Authority. I cannot believe that that was in any way deliberate or that the authority intended to be discourteous to him. If he had had an acknowledgement but not a reply, he might have had grounds for complaint; but for someone not to acknowledge an hon. Member's letter is almost so unprecedented that I can only think that it may have been lost in the post. However, I shall cause immediate investigations to be made and a letter to be sent by the Severn-Trent Water Authority to my hon. Friend.

I turn to some of the difficulties which my hon. Friend has mentioned. I agree with him that, if there is a working class family in his constituency which is being charged £8 a week to have a cesspit emptied, that is an intolerable burden and it justifies the consultation document and further consideration of the problem.

We asked for replies to our consultation document to be in by the end of July. Some people thought that that was too short a time, but I put it forward as evidence of the Government's concern about and desire to tackle the matter. We have said in the consultation document that we must do something about equalising charges for Welsh consumers. Without making any predictions, may I say that we hope to be able to proceed on that basis as urgently as we can.

On the question of charges for cesspit emptying, if there proves to be a consensus which leads us to think that it would not be a greatly controversial matter, we would hope to move quickly on it. Possibly there is general agreement about it. However, my hon. Friend will understand that the question of legislation depends on the timetable for the next Session, which, as far as I can see, is likely to be dominated by the question of devolution. Other Ministers in other Departments will no doubt hope to get a look in on the parliamentary timetable. Therefore, my hon. Friend will not expect me to go further than I have gone.

There are about 900,000 properties in this country occupied by 2½ million people, served by cesspools and septic tanks. No one envisaged what would be the consequences of the Daymond judgment, and I regret the position that the country has been put in as a result of that judgment. The division of responsibility between local authorities and water authorities shows how ill thought out was the Water Act 1973. Local authorities empty the cesspits and then take the waste to the water authorities for disposal. As a result of the Daymond judgment, local authorities are saying that they cannot carry out the service at a subsidised rate. We have asked them to be as reasonable as they can, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has confirmed that his authority is being as reas onable as possible.

Water authorities must act according to the law of 1973, which requires them to break even on revenue account, taking one year with another, since the sole source of their income is the charges that they make. Therefore, they, too, are in a difficult position. The Yorkshire Water Authority is charging at the lower end of the scale, as the figures which my hon. Friend read out show, and is treating waste matter.

Mr. Hardy

I understand that the Yorkshire Water Authority charges £4 to receive 1,000 gallons. It is the second highest charge in Britain. It may be an equal second highest charge, but it is too high.

Mr. Howell

I thought that it was charging £3.

Mr. Hardy

That relates to the Severn-Trent Water Authority.

Mr. Howell

Then the charge of the Severn-Trent Water Authority is more reasonable.

I should like an examination of the details of the case concerning the family which was charged £8 a week. It is important that they should be examined so that we may see whether administratively we can help.

My hon. Friend also referred to three cottages which were using one cesspool, two families agreeing to co-operate about the charges and one family failing to agree. I do not think the general law helps here. There must be agreement between the three families about sharing the cost. There can be no question of allowing the cesspit to overflow. If that happened, the local authority would have to take action under the Public Health Acts or, if necessary, serve a summons. Presumably it would have to decide where the joint and several responsibilities lay. If my hon. Friend will let me have details of that case also, I shall consider them, because it raises questions of principle to which I should like to give further attention. It is natural to say that we are sympathetic about hardship which may be caused, but the hardship outlined by my hon. Friend is exceptional and it needs to be specially considered.

The whole question will be carefully examined by Ministers in the context of the review of the water industry as a whole. We asked for submissions to be made to us by 31st July. We have not extended the time because we regard the matter as being urgent. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members may enjoy the period between now and the autumn even more, or possibly less, if you know that my right hon. Friends and I are spending our time analysing the hundreds of submissions which have reached us in an attempt to rationalise them and to draw policy conclusions on which we can make an early announcement. There are many other pressing parts of the consultation document on water, but if we can achieve a consensus on the urgent matters of principle—I see no reason why we should not, because there is general political agreement—it may help us to persuade our colleagues that time should be made available to us for consequential legislation. However, I make no promises about that. My hon. Friend is wise in saying that Labour Governments over the years have produced legislation which has helped rural life. I have no doubt that we shall do so again.