HC Deb 20 July 1977 vol 935 cc1803-8

Lords Amendment No. 39 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 40, in page 4, line 34, at end insert— (2A) This Act shall come into force at the expiration of the period of three months beginning with the day on which it is passed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

With this it may be convenient to take the two amendments thereto: to leave out 'three' and insert 'five', and to leave out 'three' and insert 'twelve'.

Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment: leave out 'three' and insert 'five'.—[Mr. Arthur Jones.]

Mr. Alec Jones

The Lords amendment seeks to impose a delay of three months between the Bill's enactment and its coming into force. It will have no practical effect, but unless Opposition Members move to remove this provision, I do not propose to stand in its way.

I advise my hon. Friends to vote against the two Opposition amendments, which would increase the delay either from three months to five months or from three months to twelve months. I do so on the ground that if we were to accept five months it would, in effect, postpone the prospect of operating the Bill until 1979. If we assume that we have Royal Assent in July, it would be some five months before we were likely to be able to place the orders under the Consultation Procedures. That would make it impossible for the private companies to carry out their necessary proposals.

The amendment that would increase the delay to 12 months is an open attempt, as I see it, to delay implementation. I invite my hon. Friends to reject both amendments. The first amendment would delay the coming into force of the Bill until 1979 and the second is deliberately intended to bring about a longer delay.

Mr. Arthur Jones

I assure the Minister that there is no intention for my amendments to be wrecking. It was my noble Friend Lord Sandford who originally moved the amendment that has now been accepted by the Government. He did that to. in the context of the non-appearance of the White Paper, which has since been published.

It will be quite an exhilerating experience for him to have one of his amendments accepted. He did so much to try to bring a little more reality and common sense to bear in the Bill, most of which, I fear, has been frustrated in our proceedings today. However, we have now had the White Paper and there does not seem to be a reasonable period provided for consideration. Three months will run mainly in the period of the Summer Recess.

1.15 a.m.

I do not think that a proposal to delay the coming into force of the Act will in any way deter the negotiations and the preparations that are required by the Department, the water authorities and the statutory companies. My purpose and that of my hon. Friends is to give adequate time for the White Paper's proposals for the future of the industry to be considered. I am not sure that the amendment would prevent the Act from coming into force before next year. I make five months from today 20th December. I do not know whether the House will not be sitting on 20th December, but the amendment would not frustrate the purpose of implementing the Act before the end of this year. The idea was that we should follow the lines of the amendment of Lord Sandford but extend it for two months because of the recess.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The Minister was right to imagine that the amendment standing in my name would have the effect of wrecking the Bill. I make no apology for that because I am against the Bill, anyway. I would prefer the second amendment—that is, for the 12 months' delay—to be accepted, because that in effect would mean that the Act would start to work only in 1979.

I should like the Minister to recognise why that would be better. First, the Government have committed themselves in their important White Paper to further major legislation on water. I suppose I spent nearly two years of my life and a great deal of time in the House piloting the 1973 Act through. At that time I felt that it would be right for the water industry—all of it, sewerage, rivers, water supply, conservation—to be left alone for a while. I thought then and still think that it would be wrong to attempt any further major re-structuring for the time being.

No Act carried by any Government is ever perfect. I should be the first to accept that there are some proposals in the White Paper that make sense, but I believe that overall it is in the best interests of the water industry to leave it alone for a while and let the new structure settle down and work.

That is not the view the Government have taken. They said in their Green Paper that they would make drastic changes. They have translated that into a White Paper, but they have dropped one of the big changes they were proposing, namely, the nationalisation of the private companies. I welcome that. None the less, the Government propose in the White Paper some further quite important drastic changes—to create a national water authority and to change the arrangement for financial control of investment.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is here, even though he seems to be resting his eyes for the moment. I put it to him that since new major legislation is proposed within the next year or so it must be wrong to be carrying through this partial piece of legislation only to bump into a further major Act within a matter of months. The sensible thing to have done for the industry, for the consumer, and indeed for Parliament itself, would have been to subsume this miserable little Bill into the major legislation that the Government propose to bring forward in 1979.

I am sure that within the recesses of the Department of the Environment there must have been some contemplation at least of putting the two Bills together—the small one we have before us and the major one that is proposed—instead of troubling the industry, the officials, the Ministers, and indeed the House, with two bites at the cherry—one a little nibble and one a major swallow that is to take place. Therefore, from a legislative point of view alone it would be far better to allow this miserable little Bill to be subsumed in 1979 by the major legislation that the Government propose, assuming that they are here then.

The second reason why I believe that there should be further delay is that the Bill will have an impact on inflation. It is an unfortunate fact, well known to all of us, that a sharp little increase in the water charge, which will happen in London and many of the water authorities, will be greatly resented. London hon. Members will hear from their constituents about it. It will be regarded by many people as another little twist in the cost of living, whereas the contrary experience in the receiving parts of the country will be that the very small reduction in the water rate will not be appreciated at all.

It is a matter of human experience that even the smallest impositions are resented and modest improvements are not appreciated. The Government will find this, and they are unwise to risk the impact on the paying part of the population for whatever modest gains they may have among the receiving parts of the population.

The Secretary of State will receive little thanks from Wales but many kicks from London. I believe that he knows that. Therefore, on grounds of inflation alone he would be wiser to do this in 1979, when the rate of inflation may be a little lower. I do not often believe the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I am inclined to think that it will be a little lower then. It would be far better to have the impact on the London consumer then than now.

Thirdly, by 1979 we shall perhaps know where we are on devolution. Wales is a large part of the Bill. I understand the needs of the South-West as well, but Wales is the important area whose problems and disparities need to be recognised. The Government propose that water shall be one of the devolved subjects with which the new Welsh Assembly will deal. I have never concealed my view that Wales was and is entitled to an Exchequer subsidy produced by this House to help mitigate some of the indiscriminately adverse impact on Welsh consumers. But it would be far and away better to do it in an open way, possibly through the devolved Welsh Assembly, if it ever comes into being, and in 1979 we shall be able to see what we are doing.

The last reason is by far the more important to me. I believe that in 1979 there will probably be a change of Government, and that we on the Conservative Benches should handle the matter far better than the right hon. Gentleman has handled it.

For all those reasons I strongly support my hon. Friend's amendment, and, even more, the one in my name.

Sir A. Meyer

Perish the idea that a directly-elected Welsh Assembly should involve itself in such powers! Whatever its composition, there is one certainty—that it will get the nationalist water bit between its teeth and exploit to the utmost the fact that there are large areas of water in Wales. I have a nasty feeling that the kind of infection would take hold even in Labour Members of an elected Assembly.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I do not disagree, but I am quoting the Government's own Bill. That is what the devolution Bill says.

Sir A. Meyer

That is why I am so firmly opposed to it, and I think that thoughtful Labour Members are equally opposed to it.

My hon. Friend's psychology is admirable, but from the breadth of his prosperous acres of barley it betrays a woeful lack of knowledge of the economic facts of life in the Principality. He said that any reduction in the water rate would hardly be noticed. Psychologically, of course he is right. People grumble like fury about a small increase and do not say "Thank you" for a small decrease. But in my constituency and, I imagine, many Welsh constituencies we are in areas which are scattered and therefore have high travel-to-work costs. We are in an area of low relative wage levels, poor employment prospects for women and low family incomes. A slight decrease in a fixed charge such as the water charge could make all the difference between its being worth a man's while to go out to work and his making the pernicious calculation that, once bus fares have been paid, it would not be worth going to work and he would do better to stay at home and try to claim supplementary benefits.

Such a reduction could play a significant part in increasing the level of economic activity in Wales. That is why, if there is a vote, I shall support the Government.

Amendment to the Lords amendment negatived.

Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment, put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment No. 41 agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Mr. Coleman, Mr. Denis Howell, Mr. Arthur Jones, Mr. Alec Jones and Mr. Lester; Three be the quorum.—[Mr. Denis Howell.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain of the Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.

Back to