§ Mr. Arthur Jones
I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 41 at end insert—'(2) Subject to section 3(3) below, in giving a direction under this section for any year the Secretary of State shall have regard to any allowance made under the domestic element of the Rate Support Grant calculations in respect of the level of water charges.'This amendment deals with the question of the domestic element of the rate support grant calculations. It is something that we have talked about a great deal in Committee. We talked about it during the Second Reading, but, unfortunately, we failed to find it possible to come to any agreement on the subject. In spite of the substantial evidence that was enjoined in our advocacy, Ministers were adamant. One suspects that their attitude was directed not to the question but rather to trying to avoid it.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that it cannot and should not be avoided. It would be tedious to go over all the evidence now. But we must deal with one or two of the pieces of evidence concerning that fact that in the domestic element of the rate support grant there is a considerable factor which has regard to the costs of local government reorganisation and the level of water charges in Wales. The Government have been unable to accept this, but it appears in the House, in Government publications and in local authority material time and time again. It is necessary to go through some of the evidence and see whether the Government maintain their position.
566 12.30 a.m.
On 22nd January 1974 the Conservative Government published a White Paper, "The Rate Support Grant 1974–75", Cmnd. 5532, setting out their intentionsto use this power to protect domestic ratepayers against exceptional increases in rates arising from changes in grants and from exceptional increases in charges for water and sewerage services arising from the reorganisation of those services.In February there was a change of Government, but the Rate Support Grant Order 1974 was laid before the House on 14th March and was debated on 25th March. A number of references to this factor in the domestic element were made in that debate.
In reply to a Written Question, the late Mr. Anthony Crosland said on 15th March 1974:I propose therefore to maintain the total amount of grant previously proposed and the division of grant as between needs, resources and domestic elements."—[Official Report, 15th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 12.]That was in confirmation of the policies followed by the previous Government.
On 8th May, in an oral answer, Mr. Crosland said:We took the view that much of Wales had been affected far more seriously than other areas by the application of changes in local government and by reorganisation of finance and water and sewerage services. Lest there is a misunderstanding, I should point out that, even with the uniform domestic relief for Wales, some districts in Wales will lose out as a result of our decision."—[Official Report, 8th May 1974; Vol. 873, c. 372.]There again we have confirmation that in the domestic element of the rate support grant calculations the special position of Wales with regard to local government reorganisation and the level of water charges in the Principality were taken into account when the grant calculations were made. I am talking about 1974, but there have been no changes since. The Government have never said that they are no longer having regard to the domestic element and the differing figures that were allowed.
In the Rate Support Grant (No. 2) Order 1974, which came before the House later that year, the domestic element again refers to the reorganisation of local government and water services. It is difficult to think that no regard is now paid in the domestic element of the rate support grant to those earlier allowances. In fact, the calculations have not changed. 567 They are still relevant for next year. Here I call in aid the Daniel Report, which refers in paragraph 5.8 to the reorganisation of local government and water services.
The domestic element for 1974–75 allowed 33.5p for Wales and 13p for England. Again there was discrimination in favour of Wales. In the current year, and I understand for next year, the figures have been altered to benefit Wales-36p for Wales, which is a narrowing of the margin, and 18.5p for England. There is a mass of evidence to support the contention that in dealing with the rate support grant for Welsh local authorities regard is being paid to the increase in water charges.
The purpose of the amendment is to ask the Government to consider whether it would be fairer to have regard in any equalisation programme to that factor in the domestic element of the rate support grant. We might be told that the amendment is not drawn correctly or not correctly worded. I take responsibility for that. The purpose is to clear up the unsatisfactory debate that we have had on the rate support grant and to narrow the gulf between the Government and the Opposition and that between the Government and all the well-informed sources that have been consulted. It will be interesting to hear what the Government have to say and to what extent they are prepared to accept my argument.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
I agree that we heard a great deal about the subject in Committee. For several sittings I thought that we would hear of nothing else. I do not object to that; nor do I object to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) raising the issue tonight.
The hon. Member said that there was substantial evidence to support his claim, but there are different views about what is right and what is wrong on the issue. The hon. Member referred to his own Government's White Paper and to statements made by my late right hon. Friend, Mr. Tony Crosland. His quotations from the Daniel Report referred to the situation that existed in 1974–75. I do not expect that at the end of my speech we shall be any nearer an agreement, but in the exceptional circumstances of the year 1974–75, when the rate support 568 grant settlement was made within days of a Government taking office, we had experienced the reorganisation of local government and of the water authorities. An element of additional relief was given to the Welsh authorities to compensate them because the effects for them were greater than those for England.
The situation did not remain there. The differential between the domestic relief in England and in Wales was narrowed in the following year—as the hon. Member conceded. Because the rate support grant settlement is a decision made by Government after consultations with the local authority organisations, the Government are in the strongest and best position to say what they included and took into account.
In the settlements for 1976–77 and for 1977–78 there is no question of water charges being taken into account by the Government in their decisions about the levels of domestic relief. Those decisions that were taken for the years 1976–77 and 1977–78 were based solely on the likely effects of changes in the levels of relief on local authority domestic rate pound-ages and had no relevance whatsoever to the level of water charges in Wales or in any other part of the United Kingdom. They had no connection with them.
I can only repeat the point that I made in Committee. However much one sought to alter the level of rate support grant, it would not affect the level of water charges. The Bill is about a partial equalisation of water charges. We know that it is a modest scheme, and it is a limited scheme even in its expectations of life. By its very nature, it could not take into account those other factors.
Therefore, although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not agree with me, I assure him that the water charges are not taken into account and were not a factor in deciding the level of the domestic element.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dealing with the question at such length. I think that he knows as well as I do that the view that he is expressing is not one that is held by the local authority associations, certainly not those which I have consulted, and some of those who are on the consultative committee do not agree with the 569 views that the hon. Gentleman has now put before us.
Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to consider whether an explanation could be made available, or a memorandum setting out the factors that he has put before us tonight, having regard to the circumstances in 1974–75 and the changed circumstances, as he says, of the current financial rate support grant domestic element arrangements and those for next year? As there is so much misunderstanding on the subject, I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider whether, for the benefit of everyone, it would not be a bad idea to prepare a memorandum. It would, perhaps, help the consultative committee when it comes to consider with the Government the arrangements for subsequent years.
This is a matter that needs to be resolved. I think that the Government realise that; certainly the hon. Gentleman does. Will he give an undertaking that a memorandum would be appropriate in the circumstances of the disagreement between the two Front Benches, to set the thing out so that we can all get the benefit of it?
§ Mr. Alec Jones
I do not completely rule out the idea of a document of the nature that the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, in Committee and again tonight, I thought that I had spelled out fairly clearly, though not at great length, the Government's view on this matter. I am sure that the local authority associations that the hon. Gentleman consults and those that consult me are fully aware of what was said in Committee and that they will read what has been said in the debates tonight. However, I shall certainly look at the idea of making some communication with the organisations concerned, but I could not give a firm commitment to a detailed memorandum on the matter. The facts are available and can be read by anyone who is interested.
§ 12.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones
There is so much in dispute. That is the point. I have taken great trouble on this matter. I have tried to understand it. The rate support grant is terribly complicated. On a significant factor of this description in the domestic element, the views expressed by the two Government spokesmen are in great contradiction 570 to the evidence in the documentation to which I have referred. I know that what has been said can be read, but what is required is documentary evidence of what has taken place and the thinking that goes on behind the domestic element arrangements. Then all of us can be fully informed.
I shall not presume further now but I shall not leave the matter there. Unless something is forthcoming, I shall try to clear up the unsatisfactory situation revealed by what Ministers have said and what my inquiries have revealed.
I am not making a judgment for myself on this. My case rests on the material supplied to me and the quotations on which I have drawn. The Minister is not committed—I would not expect him to be—but I ask him to convince me that he is right. On that partial understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
§ 12.46 a.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I could not let the Third Reading be agreed to without a protest on behalf of my constituents. Although the Bill may have some moral basis, its timing is extremely bad. People in the Southern Water Authority's region—especially my constituents—have had to face substantial increases this financial year because of equalisation throughout the region. The additional burden of these charges is too much to bear.
If the Government had done something to stop the Southern Water Authority imposing its own equalisation so quickly—it was supposed to be done over five years and it was done over two—I might have taken a different view. The Southern Water Authority has been a disaster for my constituents. We were perfectly happy under our own Isle of Wight River and Water Authority—[Interruption.] Despite the grumblings of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) who knows nothing about the matter, we have gained little, if anything, from being in that authority's region. If anyone else is game to go into the Lobby against the Third Reading, I shall be pleased to join 571 him. If not, at least I have made my protest.
§ 12.48 a.m.
§ Mr. Michael Morris
As the Minister knows, I have supported the principle of the Bill from the start—
§ Mr. Morris
If the hon. Member wants to dry out, I suggest that he goes elsewhere.
I am disappointed about one thing. Most of the groundwork for the Bill was done during the summer and early autumn by the working party. I understand that even if the Bill goes through the other place successfully, it will be enacted too late to be implemented in the coming financial year. That will severely affect the areas which stand to benefit most from the Bill—the South-West, Wales and East Anglia. These are the areas which suffered most from the drought and the reorganisation and which have always suffered from difficulties of water supply.
We deprecate the loss of a year's equalisation. If there is to be a delay, perhaps the Minister would consider a partial equalisation to start at the midyear point rather than having to wait another year. I think that the Minister has succumbed too readily to the blandishments of the Thames and Southern Water Authorities, which appear to have delayed the whole thing for another year.
§ 12.50 a.m.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)
I intervene briefly to express my concern that, although the Bill is a response to the public outcry in Wales and the areas of other authorities that suffered substantial increases in 1974 and 1975, it has been so delayed that it will not benefit them in the coming financial year. I still do not understand precisely why it cannot be implemented and I hope that the Minister will give us a full explanation. If the Bill has a Third Reading now and goes through another place rapidly—and I understand that the billing by water authorities does not take place until May—I fail to see why it would not be possible to implement the Bill and to have, if not full, at least part 572 equalisation during the coming financial year.
I am concerned that the fact that the Bill will not be implemented this year will mean a £3 million loss to ratepayers in Wales. I am also concerned that having seen two major reports on the issue—the Daniel Report and that of the working party—the Government took so long to prepare legislation and to bring it before the House.
In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) raised the matter of industrial equalisation. We consider this to be of major importance to industry in Wales and we are not satisfied that the Bill—although it is limited in scope—should not have contained proposals for industrial as well as domestic equalisation. We hope that the next major Bill on the issue—and we are apparently to be offered such a Bill—will include such a provision.
We still think that it would have been simpler to adopt the programme that we have advocated for many years—that the Welsh water authority should be empowered to make a clear economic charge for the transfer of water resources from Wales.
§ 12.52 a.m.
§ Mr. Wyn Roberts (Conway)
The Minister called this a modest Bill. It is certainly not much of a Bill by any standards and we are surprised to see it presented for Third Reading in view of the Government's declared intention of introducing another and more comprehensive measure before long. Perhaps it is the imminence of the Government's loss of office that has persuaded them that the Bill is worth preserving despite its deficiencies.
My first criticism of the Bill is that it does not live up to its title. It does not fully equalise water charges as the title suggests. It equalises them only partly. Had the Bill come into operation next month, the highest average domestic bills would still have been payable in the Welsh and South-West water authority areas. The lowest Bills would still have been payable in the North-West and Thames Water Authority areas.
It is true that the range of average domestic bills would have been narrowed and that the gap between the highest and lowest bills would have been reduced 573 from £11.70 to £7.35. That would have been the value of the Bill had it been introduced in time to take effect this coming year, and that is the extent of the equalisation that it introduces.
The most glaring defect of the measure is undoubtedly the one that has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson). namely, that the Bill does not cover the unmeasured consumers supplied by private water companies. They account for nearly a quarter of all unmeasured consumers in England and Wales. However, the Minister is looking into that matter and seeking to bring in the private companies, so we cannot be too hard on him.
Since Thames will be the largest contributor to the levy pool and Wales will be the largest beneficiary, it is tempting to attack the Bill—as the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) did in an intervention during my Second Reading speech—by asking how one could possibly justify London subsidising Welsh consumers. We have tended to forget that Anglia is also a considerable beneficiary and it could be argued that the Thames levy will go to that area, while receipts in Wales will be made up of levies from Severn and Trent and the North-West, which will total more than £2 million. These areas are supplied with water from Wales and I argued in Committee that if Welsh charges for transferred water had been higher, the water charges to Welsh consumers would not be so high and there might not have been so much need for the Bill. This would still have left the South-West with abysmally high charges, but they might have been alleviated by Exchequer subsidy, as some of my hon. Friends have suggested.
The Government have seriously mishandled the Bill. They introduced it too late for it to become effective this year. The more we look into it, the more doubtful we become about whether it was ever the Government's intention that the Bill should come into effect this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) was adamant on this point as early as the second sitting of the Committee. My hon. Friend said:The Minister must know that it is not possible, in the circumstances, for the Bill to come into effect in April. This is nothing 574 to do with the Committee. Even if the Committee were to close up shop now, there would be no way in which that could be done."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 3rd February 1977, c. 60.]What has been disgraceful is the ununconscionable way in which the Government have sought to blame the Opposition for their own dilatoriness. I am not referring so much to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment as to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales, who appears to have briefed the Lobby correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post on 17th February—the day on which the Minister announced that it was too late for the Bill to become effective this year. The following morning's paper contained an article which said:Welsh Secretary Mr. John Morris last night put the blame on the Tories—and accused them of deliberately holding up the Water Charges Bill".Later in the same article we read:Mr. Morris scored a personal triumph by persuading his Cabinet colleagues to include the legislation in this year's congested programme.If the right hon. and learned Gentleman scored a personal triumph in Cabinet, there must have been some opposition to him and it is clear that the opposition succeeded in delaying the presentation of the Bill for Second Reading until 24th January. [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Observations from a sedentary position by hon. Members on the Government Front Bench are particularly deprecated.
§ Mr. Roberts
The Committee stage began on 1st February and by 17th February the Government were glad to announce that it was too late for the Bill to become effective this year. That is the truth of the matter. The Government have been in no hurry to get the Bill on to the statute book. As a number of us forecast on Second Reading, the House is divided on the Bill according to constituency interest. Those who stand to gain are for it and those who stand to lose are opposed to it—though there are some who rise above such mundane considerations and take a national view.
Welsh Conservative Members said that we were in favour of part equalisation when the consultative document first 575 appeared. That seemed to us to he an extension of the principle of equalisation already operating within individual authority areas. We were also for partial equalisation because it was a measure designed to reduce our very high water charges in Wales, and it was bound to command our support. Others in the House who have not suffered rising water charges to anything like the same extent as we have can only imagine the desperate situation in which we have found ourselves in recent years. Therefore, any alleviation provided by the Bill will be welcome.
§ 1.1 a.m.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
I shall immediately take up the point made by the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts). I wish to mention the procrastination that occurred in Committee, leading to the regrettable fact that we cannot implement the Bill in time for 1st April this year. It does not lie in the hon. Gentleman's mouth to complain about the Bill not being applicable this year or any other year.
Rarely have I heard a speech of greater humbug than that delivered by the hon. Gentleman. At the conclusion of eight sittings on Clause 1, the hon. Gentleman voted against that clause because he said that it could still be defective. If that was an attempt at intellectual gymnastics, it was totally unconvincing. The hon. Gentleman voted for Clause 1—which is the body of the Bill—on Second Reading and, for some reason, then voted against the clause in Committee.
§ Mr. Wyn Roberts
The Minister knows as well as I do that Clause 1 was imperfect at that stage, and is still imperfect. It has to be amended to include private water companies.
§ Mr. Howell
That is an even more astonishing assertion. If this Bill requires to be amended in another place to include the private water companies, it will he so amended. I gave the undertaking in Committee which I give again this evening. Both undertakings were accepted by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones), speaking for the Official Opposition, but they were not accepted apparently by the second Opposition spokesman 576 on this Bill, the hon. Member for Conway, who represents Wales. That is the most extraordinary gymnastic performance I have seen in a long time, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to change his vocation, I shall be glad to offer him a scholarship in gymnastics at one of my sports centres, where he would be better qualified to participate.
I should like to deal with the matter of delay. We spent 20 hours in Committee discussing one clause. I have admitted that the Bill was introduced into this House later than I had hoped, and it was due for Second Reading on the day the House adjourned out of respect for a former Prime Minister—which delayed the matter for several more days. That made the timetable difficult. Nevertheless, in our view it would have been reasonable to have got that Bill through Committee in four sittings. But to have eight sittings and to spend 20 hours on one clause was quite ridiculous.
I said in Committee that I had told local authorities that they could not expect to hold up their accountancy arrangements, their computer operations and their billing for too long, and that we wanted the Bill by 1st April. When the point was reached when I felt in fairness to the authorities' accountancy and administration procedures that it was impossible to hold out hope of getting the Bill for this year, I made an announcement to that effect. In one sitting we dealt with the next five clauses. If ever there was a give-away of the Opposition's attitude in Committee, it was that. After eight sittings and 20 hours on one clause they succeeded in delaying the implementation of the Bill for 12 months. After that the rest of the Bill was dealt with in one sitting. Their change of attitude was extraordinarily revealing.
§ Mr. Michael Morris
I was not a member of the Committee but I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends did a genuine job of exhaustively examining the pros and cons of Clause 1, as is the role and duty of an Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman has said that there comes a point when the local authorities cannot be held up. Is he not aware of the Daymond case, which took place in the not too distant past, when there was a redistribution between ratepapers that was retrospective? There have been cases in the past when local authorities 577 have been warned about legislation that has been passing through the House when the Government have had the majority to see it through and when it was within the powers of the Government to tell the local authorities—
§ Mr. Morris
It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. It is still within the powers of the Government to tell local authorities that they can make this amendment. Why will he not do that?
§ Mr. Howell
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not as conversant with the Bill's provisions as I thought. It is clear from the provisions that the Secretary of State has to determine the matter in advance of the year and make a decision in advance of the year. The Bill does not allow him any degree of retrospection. It is not usual in our procedures to allow for retrospection. The retrospection in the Daymond case came about only because of a decision by the Law Lords with which we had to deal. They declared that the law was different from what we believed it to be. That is quite different from passing an Act of Parliament and allowing for retrospection.
I understand that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) saw fit to complain about the effect of regional equalisation. At the time that the Water Act passed through the House, the hon. Gentleman and I, as well as others, pointed out the effect of regional equalisation. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make his complaint. With the industry operating on a regional basis, wide discrepancies among domestic users became apparent, from 46 per cent. above the national average in Wales and the South-West and slightly less than that in Norfolk, Suffolk, Northumberland and Durham to 18 per cent. below. We took the view that that was an impossibly wide variation of charges for an essential commodity. The Bill reduces that variation to 28 per cent. above and 12 per cent. below.
In response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) I stress that two things go side by side in respect of the Bill. The country as a whole, particularly the receiving water authority areas, except places such as 578 Wales, which supplies so much of the water to England, should not make a profit out of water transactions. The proposition in the Bill that I set out on Second Reading is accepted, namely, that all such water transfers should be on a non-profit-no-loss basis. If that is essential for the future safeguarding of supplies, especially to the Severn-Trent Authority, the East Midlands and Lancashire, and possibly in future to the Thames Authority, if it is important to give a guarantee to water consumers in the Midlands, Lancashire and London that there will be no profit made out of future water transfers, it seems that there is a moral obligation upon us all to help people in Wales, the West Country and Anglia suffering under the present pricing arrangements and to give them the degree of equity which the bill seeks to bring about.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas
Does the Minister accept that if the transfer of resource takes place on a no-profit-no-loss basis, that is a powerful moral argument for total equalisation?
§ Mr. Howell
That may come in future. I should not dispute that. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends make a great mistake when they seek to impose a solution on water charging the result of which would be that Wales would make a profit from the water that it sold to England. In Committee I said that the result of that kind of propaganda was already being felt. People in the Severn-Trent and in the North-West authorities are already saying "Why should we make massive investments in Wales if that is what the Welsh nationalists want and what a Welsh Assembly might do at some distant time? We shall therefore build our reservoirs in England."
I remind the hon. Gentleman that England is the drainage authority for Wales. All the rivers in Wales flow into England. The Severn and the Wye flow from Wales into England. Therefore, the Severn-Trent and Conservative voices in other authorities are now beginning to say "Let us not put the investment in Wales. Let us put it in England." Therefore, the danger in what the Welsh nationalists and others in Wales are saying is that the Principality would be denied—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am not aware that there is anything about the Welsh nationalists in the Bill.
§ Mr. Howell
I am aware that they are present in this House making their case. Therefore, it seems reasonable to reply to the case that they have made.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I should be obliged if the right hon. Gentleman would deal only with what is in the Bill.
§ Mr. Howell
I am certainly dealing with what is in the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or at least with the points which have been made on Third Reading. I am dealing with each point which has been made. I shall conclude this part of my argument quickly.
If the kind of thinking that we have heard from the hon. Member for Merioneth were carried to its logical conclusion and got the reaction that I predicted, it would deny Wales massive investment and rateable value which the water industry provides for the Principality. It is important to put that on record.
This modest Bill has been exhaustively examined. It is interesting that it came unscathed from the Committee and was reported to the House unamended. Despite the fact that it was an extremely involved Bill, its provisions were found on examination to be sound and unassailable. The Bill may have to be amended elsewhere in accordance with the guarantees that I have given. If so, we shall no doubt have a further opportunity to discuss the Bill when it comes back to this House on its final course.
I commend the Bill to the House. It represents simple equity and justice which the imposition of the provisions of the Water Act on a large number of people in this country certainly justify.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones
I do not think that the Minister of State was correct. We had nine meetings in Committee, not eight.
§ Mr. Jones
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. At the sixth sitting the right hon. Gentleman, announcing that it would not be possible to implement the Bill for the next financial year, said: 580The Secretary of State and I have reluctantly had to conclude that it will not be possible to get the Bill on the statute book in time to present an order to Parliament for the effects of the Bill to be implemented for the financial year 1977–78.Then, in a most revealing remark, the right hon. Gentleman said:The Government very much regret that situation, which has been brought about by the lack of expedition with which we have applied our minds to these matters."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 17th February 1977; cc. 307–8.]That reflects the circumstances in which the right hon. Gentleman allowed himself to be put.
What, in fact, he did was to try to introduce this legislation too late in the day to give it a reasonable chance of full discussion. It is no real credit to say that the Bill came back unamended. I recall that when we had Divisions the right hon. Gentleman, quite properly, saw that his side of the Committe was Whipped. That is how the Bill got through unscathed. We did not vote the same way all the time, as Labour Members did.
It is therefore no credit to say that the Bill came through unscathed. In fact, the argument was won on a number of occasions by my right hon. and lion. Friends. The right hon. Gentleman has yet to answer the rate support grant objection. I am glad that the Secretary of State has joined—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. What may or may not have happened in Committee is not now relevant to what is in the Bill.
§ Mr. Jones
I thought that in his remarks the right hon. Gentleman was mentioning what was omitted from the Bill. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you called the right hon. Gentleman to order when he referred to water storage in Wales and said that arrangements would be made by the regional water authorities in England if the Welsh nationalists pursued their policies in this respect.
581 I feel myself that this is a minor Bill, but its purpose is questionable, particularly in terms of the lateness of its presentation in the House and the prospect of a major water Bill. It was said that we should have a White Paper in the early spring, but perhaps it is such a contentious measure that will be contested very seriously, that it, too, will be delayed.
Equalisation arrangements such as these strike at the roots of qualitative management and the comparative efficiency of one water authority against another, as well as the records of the private water companies. In that respect the measure is widely considered to be a dis-service to the water industry. It has been said with some justification that the subject was tied to devolution. Indeed, the remarks of the Secretary of State for Wales are an indication that devolution proposals were partially responsible for this measure.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones
I shall give way in a moment. The very fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman felt that he should engage himself so earnestly and noisely in the debate this evening is an indication that his anxiety for devolution was equal to his concern for the partial equalisation of water charges.
All the endeavours that Opposition Members have made have been directed towards improving the Bill. Some useful suggestions have been made—[Interruption]. Labour Member are denying that, but their copybook is not blotless in that respect. One cannot be right every time. I would have thought that the Minister would have been wise to give way once or twice on some of the propositions that we submitted, because there is no credit in winning every time. The right hon. Gentleman continually refers to the support that there is for the Bill in some parts of the House. He will be the first to recognise that the support comes mainly from those who will benefit. One usually receives support from those who will benefit from an arrangement.
The Minister was wrong to chide my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) for being the only Members in the Chamber who spoke against the Bill who would be in a position to benefit from the Bill. The right 582 hon. Gentleman knows that I am in the area of the Anglian Water Authority myself. I am against the philosophy behind the Bill, as opposed to trying to accept the immediate benefits flowing from it which fundamentally are misguided.
The acrimony that has been evident since some senior members of the Government arrived tonight does not reflect the relationship that we enjoyed in Committee. Senior Ministers are trying to pump poison into that relationship.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the Bill would militate against the whole principle of the efficient running of the water authorities. Is he seriously suggesting that the reorganisation of the water authorities promulgated by the Tory Government has brought about efficiency and that the 46 per cent. differential in the cost of water in Wales indicates efficiency on the part of the Welsh National Water Development Authority?
§ Mr. Jones
I do not want to make a judgment on the efficiency or otherwise of the Welsh authority. As regards the reorganisation of the water cycle, there is very little criticism anywhere of the sound common sense and the improved arrangements that lie behind the reorganisation of water supply. The placing of water supply and sewage disposal under one authority has been a very enlightened development. There is little disagreement between the two sides of the House about this. It is recognised to have been a major step forward. In a situation in which so much water is re-cycled, equalisation must militate against individual efficiency of management and not give the relative comparisons that are desirable.
I want to conclude in a vein which is not critical and hypersensitive. I have thoroughly enjoyed the proceedings on the Bill. I believe that in general the right hon. Gentleman has as well. Some of the remarks that have been made tonight have given quite the wrong impression of what I consider to have been a very useful exercise in examining carefully the proposals in the Bill.
Although we are against the Bill in principle, we shall not be dividing the House. That news will be received with joy by those who have remained. This is an unfortunate measure. It should 583 have been rolled up in the major legislation which it is proposed to bring forward in a few months' time. We shall have to see to what extent the Bill is altered by those arrangements.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.