HC Deb 18 April 1978 vol 948 cc356-70

Amendment made: No. 91, in page 64, leave out lines 5 and 6.—[Mr. Alec Jones.]

Mr. Benyon

I beg to move Amendment No. 92. in page 64, leave out lines 7 and 8.

I must confess that after the latest intervention of the Minister, I am more confused than I was when we started. I start from the premise that I read the Forestry Act 1967, and where the Minister comes into the matter I insert "the Assembly" The question that I sought to ask the Minister during his speech related to the commissioners, with whom the amendment was concerned. If the amendment were to be passed it would not remove forestry from a devolved area. It would simply restrict the power of the Minister to alter the existing situation as regards the commissioners. Under Clause 61(3), among the powers proposed for the Minister is …requiring or authorising the appointment of additional members". The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has sought an answer on this. Does that mean that there is no devolved power for the number of commissioners to be varied? Is that what the Minister meant in an earlier debate?

I do not want to rehearse the forestry arguments, but I would repeat one point made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker). Although it is reasonable to talk of the powers vested in a Minister in relation to local government Acts, it is not the same when one is dealing with an industry. The hon. Member for Dagenham rightly pointed out that functions in relation to British Leyland. British steel and other nationalised industries are not being devolved. Why devolve in relation to this industry?

Agriculture and forestry interact. The EEC is considering its forestry policy and is about to produce a composite document. It will be crazy if we cannot deal with the two together. I hope that the amendment will elicit some clarification.

Mr. Alec Jones

Most of what I would say in reply to the amendment has been said already on the many occasions when the subject of forestry has cropped up.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) asked whether the Welsh Assembly would have power to change the composition of the Forestry Commission. I would not have framed the question like that, but under Clause 61(3)(b), which provides for an increase in the number of members, that increase could come about only after consultation between the Assembly and the Forestry Commission, and then after my right hon. Friend had made an order which would have to receive the agreement of Parliament under the affirmative resolution procedure.

Mr. Benyon

Then it is true to say that the Assembly's function is purely advisory.

Mr. Jones

Not in the general sense of the word, but the actual appointment of any additional commissioners will be made by Her Majesty the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.

As I said earlier, I do not deny that there is a strong link between agriculture and forestry. The devolution of forestry matters recognises that the case for a vigorous forestry policy rests at least as much on social and environmental considerations, for which the Assembly will be primarily responsible, as on economic factors. The main links are between forestry and other devolved activities which are important to the economy of rural Wales—the countryside, tourism, and the functions of the Development Board for Rural Wales. Forestry has closer links with those matters than with agriculture. That is why we feel that we were right to devolve forestry, with safeguards.

Mr. Dalyell

In the past half hour, we have seen how much, in this case as in so many others, there is of window dressing, of the trappings without the substance. That is highly dangerous. Within weeks of election, the Assemblies will tumble to how little they can do. The Welsh Assembly will be simply advisory. The real powers in this matter remain with the Treasury and the Forestry Commission. The Assembly will apparently be given power over the Welsh matters, yet at the first sign of conflict it will be defeated. That will just lead to discontent and will make the situation unsatisfactory. This window dressing is politically dangerous.

Mr. Jones

I do not want to keep repeating myself, but it is just not true that the Assembly will have the trappings and not the power when dealing with forestry. It will finance forestry activities in Wales. The old saying is "He who pays the piper calls the tune." That means that the Assembly will have some powers—and, I think, far more considerable powers than has been suggested.

Mr. Benyon

We have now jumped to another point, and an important one. Although, under Clause 4, the Assembly will give grants for forestry, surely the Forestry Commission itself will still be financed direct by the Exchequer, even though its activities may take place in Wales.

Mr. Dalyell

This is where we are in a difficulty of having our cake and eating it. Now my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary says "But, of course, the Assembly has great power because it is in charge of finance." If this is meaningful, we come back to another matter. What happens then to the coherent strategy and the coherent policy of the Forestry Commission? If we say "Ah, but the Assembly has a final say in relation to finance, the Assembly pays the piper and calls the financial tune", we cannot talk about the coherence of these bodies, be it the Forestry Commission or the British Waterways Board. Once again, this is a question of having one's cake and eating it. It is one thing or the other. One cannot have it both ways.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 93, in page 64, leave out lines 11 and 12.—[Mr. Parker.]

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

I beg to move Amendment No. 261, in page 64, leave out lines 15 and 16.

The Chairman

With this we are to take the following Amendments:

No. 257, in page 25, line 7, at end insert: Provided that this subsection shall not apply to the Welsh National Water Development Authority". No. 258, in page 27, line 11, leave out "The" and insert: if it appears to him to be expedient for the purpose of securing a more efficient supply of water, the". No. 259, in page 27, line 16, leave out from "but" to end of line 18 and insert: any such order shall be subject to special parliamentary procedure".

Mr. Ellis

In his speech on the Question, That Clause 61 stand part, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) referred to the four amendments in my name, and seemed to do so with some approval, as if he assumed that they were on the Notice Paper because of a profound disagreement that I have with the devolution proposals in respect of water. I hasten to disabuse him of that notion. The amendments are on the Notice Paper for a comparatively narrow purpose—to clarify the situation in respect of a statutory water company which has its registered office in Wrexham in my constituency, the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company.

I have been in contact with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for about 12 months about this subject, going back to the original Scotland and Wales Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the great deal of trouble he has taken in trying to explain to me by letter the precise position of the statutory water company consequent upon the passing of this Bill. But, as a number of hon. Members have said during the debate today, the Bill is very complex and it is difficult for people such as I who are not highly skilled in these matters to understand clearly what the position would be. Therefore, I tabled the amendments as probing amendments to see whether I could be enlightened even further than I have been so far.

My hon. Friend has tried to reassure me by letter. I should like that reassurance to go a little further if possible, and be told that the water company will remain as a separate water company. It is the only statutory water company in Wales coming within the ambit of this legislation. It acts as an agent for the Welsh National Water Development Authority. I hope that I shall receive the reassurances I seek. If I have them, I shall be very happy, with the Committee's permission, to withdraw the amendment.

There are a number of reasons why I want to see the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company remain a separate statutory water company and be quite free of any danger of being incorporated by the action of the Welsh Assembly into the Welsh National Water Development Authority or any other body. It should remain separate as the only separate water company in Wales in the authority's region.

My reasons have nothing to do with any criticism that I would make of the authority. On the contrary, I am full of praise for it. I should like to mention in passing that now that its new chairman, Mr. Haydn Rees, following the unfortunate death of his predecessor, is beginning to get to grips with the problems of the water industry in Wales, one senses the feel of purposeful steering beginning to develop in that authority. I pay tribute to the chairman and his staff. My anxiety to retain the water company as a separate institution has nothing to do with any criticism of the authority.

The plain fact is that it seems to me important, for many reasons which have nothing to do with devolution, that we should retain a different type of semi-independent water agency within the overall ambit of the authority. The statutory water companies generally have always been very sensitive to public opinion. They are very close to the public. Water is such an important service. Indeed, for many years people hardly knew that the water companies existed. One simply turned on the tap, the water came, and that was that. They were hardly noticed partly because they were very sensitive.

It is important, for a number of other reasons, that the position of a water company should be clarified. For example, the water company in my area is in the process at the moment of raising £2 million in order to further its technical developments over the next five years It is raising this money on the market and has responsibilities to its creditors, employees and shareholders. It is therefore important, for all these reasons, that the water company should be quite clear exactly what will happen to it over the coming years.

There is another important reason for arguing that it should remain as it now is, as a semi-independent water-supplying service. The statutory water companies as they now exist—and this is the only one in Wales—form an independent unit for water supply within an industry which is for the most part operating on a multifunctional basis. It must be very helpful, therefore, within such an industry to retain at least one water company in order to allow the performance of the industry generally to be measured.

This is a clear example, in microcosm, of the value of a mixed economy. On technical grounds and on quite pragmatic business grounds, it is a very useful thing to have as a criterion by which the efficiencies of the water authority and of the company itself can be measured. It is for these reasons that I want it to continue as it has continued since the reorganisation of water a few years ago.

A number of clauses in the Bill refer to the position of the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh National Water Development Authority, and so on, and to the various changes. I was at one stage a little anxious about Clause 62, and the possibility of changes being made under it. I am very happy that my hon. Friend was able to reassure me that under that clause nothing can happen to the water company by any action of the Welsh Assembly because, as was pointed out, the Welsh Assembly has no powers under the clause to take over the functions which apply to a body save when all the existing ministerial powers of appointment to it are to be devolved to the Assembly. As was pointed out, paragraph 39 of Schedule 11 provides that one member of the body should be appointed jointly by the Secretary of State and the Minister.

Sir A. Meyer

The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, showing himself vigilant in the defence of his constituents' interests, without mentioning that the charges of his local water company in Wrexham are substantially lower than those prevailing elsewhere in Wales. Will he accept that there are occasions on which others of us, who are less attached to the principle of devolution than he is, may be led to uphold the interests of our constituents, even when it leads us to oppose devolution, in exactly the same way as the hon. Gentleman's defence of his constituents is leading him to utter the most impeccable Tory sentiments that I have heard for some time?

Mr. Ellis

It is a question not of making a Tory speech but of looking after a supremely efficient water authority. Many authorities in Wales have been far less efficient than this one It so happens that this one is supremely efficient. I had the great good fortune, during the 1976 drought, to visit the water company and see its various reservoirs There was no shortage of water whatsoever in Wrexham. However, the public was very upset, assuming that the company was negligent in not applying some kind of rationing system. For this reason, the company, towards the end of August or in early September, despite the fact that it had plenty of water, felt obliged to meet its customers' demands and introduce a rationing system. That is a measure of its extreme efficiency.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that his water company, the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company, contributes currently £37,000 towards the equalisation fund, whereas the Welsh water authority is a receiver from that fund to the tune of about £6 million?

Mr. Ellis

I am prepared to accept those figures. But the Welsh National Water Development Authority, which has barely got under way—I referred earlier to its first dynamic chairman—inherited many problems which stem essentially from private business. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman is criticising any shortcomings of the water authority he is criticising the history of the water supply industry—largely private—in the whole of Wales. It is a great tragedy that we always tend to take up some kind of get a serious, considered, objective assessment of a particular problem without all party line on this matter. One cannot the various party points being trotted out, almost by some kind of Pavlovian reflex action.

There is the question, which is quite important, about the procedures under Clause 65 which might have a bearing on the possible future of the water company. Clause 65 deals with water and provides: For the purposes of section 10 above any power which, by any provision specified in Part I of Schedule 8 to this Act, is conferred on a Minister of the Crown shall be deemed—

  1. (a) so far as it is exercisable in relation to the Welsh National Water Development Authority, to be a power exercisable as regards Wales; and
  2. (b) so far as it is exercisable in relation to the Severn-Trent Water Authority, not to be a power exercisable as regards Wales."
That has the effect of extending the jurisdiction of the Assembly into England, since part of the Welsh National Water Development Authority's area is in England, and conversely to exclude part of Wales as part of the Severn-Trent Water Authority.

Clause 65(2) states that: The Secretary of State may, with respect to any statutory water company (within the meaning of the Water Act 1973) which supplies water to an area most of which is within Wales, by order make provision similar to the provision made by this Act with respect to the Welsh National Water Development Authority but no such order shall be made unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. But because the company is the only statutory water company supplying water to an area most of which is in Wales, Clause 65(2) can apply only to the Wrexham company, It would, therefore, seem that an order under that subsection, taken in conjunction with Clause 65(1), could provide for a transfer of the company to the Assembly and, incidentally, comprise a clearly identifiable purpose.

I know that there are various protections and consents which appear to be required in respect of orders affecting the interests of the company. But it is not clear to me exactly how the procedure for an application under Clause 65 would operate in practice. Any order which may at present be applied for under the provisions of the Water Act 1945, or the Water Resources Act 1963, must comply with the procedures laid down, and if the powers in relation to subordinate legislation are insufficient for the purpose the proposals can be implemented only by means of the Bill.

I should like to know exactly what powers would be available to the Secretary of State, or to the Assembly, beyond those already contained in the Water Act or the Water Resources Act. If there are any such powers, what protection will be afforded to the company, its employees, creditors and shareholders, in respect of any application to transfer the undertaking of the company to the Welsh National Water Development Authority?

There has been a great deal of correspondence between my hon. Friend the Minister of State and myself. He has by letter tried to explain a lot of the procedures.

I shall now finish in order to give my hon. Friend an opportunity of reassuring me on the precise position of the future of the water company under the Bill. I hope that he will be able to reassure me that the Wrexham Water Company will continue to exist as a separate and clearly identifiable water service agency, whether under the Welsh Assembly, if it comes about, or even if it does not come about.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

Amendment No. 257 takes us for the first time, with a foothold, into Clause 62. I suspect that, due to the operation of the guillotine, this is the only opportunity that we shall have to make a passing reference to what is a very important clause. It might be described as the "abolition clause" because it enables the Assembly, with the consent only of the Secretary of State, without reference to this place, to take over the powers of and, if it wishes, to abolish a number of very important bodies in Wales. I think that a passing reference to it is in order.

We have here an amendment which seeks to exclude one specific important body. It happens that Opposition Amendments Nos. 278 and 279, which have been grouped separately, were directed to a very similar argument as that to which the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) addressed his remarks, which was finding out what might be the position of the Welsh National Water Development Authority. The hon. Member took the amendment directed to the Welsh National Water Development Authority and related it to a specific water company and made some passing reference to the position of the Welsh National Water Development Authority. The Opposition's amendments sought to clarify the position.

The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill indicates that the takeover and abolition powers are to apply to those bodies in which all ministerial appointing powers are transferred to the Assembly. The Opposition's amendments suggested that the position would have been clearer if the clause were redrafted so that it applied only to bodies where the Assembly had power to appoint all the members, which would have identified clearly the Welsh National Water Development Authority. The fact that it is not identified clearly and that the clause is confused is confirmed by the fact that the authority has had to approach the Government to get clarification on this matter and that correspondence has had to pass to throw some light on the position.

The hon. Member for Wrexham is right that the Welsh National Water Development Authority is let out by paragraph 39 of Schedule 11. But this seems to be an obscure and back-door way of doing it, and it is not at all satisfactory. The Opposition would have preferred to see much clearer wording in the clause as it stands. But the simple fact is that this body appears to be let out, whereas a number of important bodies are very much brought into the provisions of the Bill by Clause 62. They include the Wales Tourist Board, the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales, as well as a number of advisory bodies such as the Historic Buildings Council, the Central Advisory Body for Education for Wales and the Ancient Monuments Board for Wales, as well as the area health authorities.

The bodies which can be executed in this way under Clause 62 were listed in a Written Answer on Thursday 16th Match. Therefore, Amendment No. 257 refers to a very remarkable and important clause. Here we have a number of bodies set up by Parliament after extensive debate which can be removed at the request of the Assembly and only on the say-so of the Secretary of State.

I have not the time to elaborate now and to quote all the remarks which were made at the time, but I have in mind all the remarks by the Under-Secretary and by the Secretary of State when setting up the Welsh Development Agency and these other bodies about the vital importance of this kind of organisation, about the importance of getting the right kind of representatives on it, about the need for specialist skills, and about the need for small, compact and efficient bodies. All these arguments were spelt out to us. Yet the Assembly can simply wipe out the whole thing on the consent of the Secretary of State without reference to Parliament at all. All the undertakings we were given about these bodies—the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales—can be simply wiped out in this way without adequate parliamentary debate.

Therefore, a reference to these bodies and the fact that one particular one among them is exempted is fully justified in the brief time that we have available up to the fall of the guillotine.

It is not clear why the Welsh National Water Development Authoirty should have the rare privilege of being exempt from abolition. Presumably, the complications of dealing on a cross-border basis were too complex. Apparently, the relationships with the English authorities prevented it. This places the board in a privileged position because almost all the other nominated bodies that were set up at the same time by the Government and for which these powerful arguments were adduced by the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretaries in debate are subject to summary execution.

This is a matter for considerable concern for Wales, for those bodies and the people who work in them. They cannot be certain that they can continue functioning in the specialist and independent way in which they are functioning. It is hard to see how many functions could be carried out by elected committees. It is hard to envisage how specialist advice of the Historic Buildings Council for Wales or the Library Advisory Council for Wales could be carried out by an elected committee. It is equally hard to see why the abolition of area health authorities, which is possible under Clause 62, would bring government any closer to the people. Clearly, it would take it further away.

I am glad that in the short time available I have been able to identify the effects of Clause 62, which is an abolition clause, which deliberately contradicts many of the undertakings given by the Ministers in setting up all these bodies. In fact, many of the bodies were set up simultaneously with the drafting and preparation of this Bill.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Morris)

I assure the hon. Member that the Government are not in breach of any undertaking. I can see why the Conservatives always fight to defend nominated bodies. It is always the way in which they can perpetuate power in Wales, in or out of office. There is no suggestion that we are in breach of any undertaking that has been given. We are seeking to democratise these bodies and it is open to the Assembly to consider the best form of running the bodies, with the consent of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Edwards

I had intended to end my speech in time to enable the Minister to reply. However, I have just been provoked into going on.

Let us consider a few of these bodies. We have one defunct council—the Central Advisory Council for Education in Wales—listed in the parliamentary answer to which I have referred. We have three learned bodies and three bodies set up by the Socialists since they came to power—the Land Authority for Wales, the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales. We also have the Development Corporation which contains six known Socialists out of nine members. We have the Wales Tourist Board which is chaired by Mr. Ednyfed Hudson Davies, the former Labour Member for Conway who is now prospective Parliamentary Labour candidate for Caerphilly. That is hardly the stuff from which the underhand perpetuation of Conservative administration is carried out.

The truth is that the nominated bodies about which we are talking in these provisions were set up by the Secretary of State for Wales and are packed with his nominees and party hacks, as are almost all the bodies with which we are dealing.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)


Mr. Edwards

No, I shall not give way. For the Secretary of State to talk about the Conservative Party perpetuating power through nominated bodies is an insult to the people of Wales and their intelligence.

Mr. John Morris


Mr. Edwards

No, I do not intend to give way.

Mr. John Morris


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Myer Galpern)

If the hon. Gentleman does not give way, that situation must be accepted.

Mr. Edwards

I have no intention of giving way. I gave way earlier to the right hon, and learned Gentleman and I am now replying to the "phoney" and erroneous point he made. The truth is that these bodies have been appointed by him and packed by his nominees.

Mr. Morris


Mr. Edwards

I am not giving way.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman is afraid to give way.

Mr. Edwards

The right hon, and learned Gentleman should not lose his temper at the Dispatch Box. He should not behave in that uncontrollable way when he is faced with the truth of politics in Wales. That truth is well known to the Welsh people. The truth is that the Labour Party, through its party caucus and party nominations, packs the political bodies in Wales.

Mr. Wigley

On a point of order, Sir Myer. Is it in order for the Conservative Front Bench spokesman to make a slur on those people by suggesting that they are members of the Labour Party?

The First Deputy Chairman

Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards

The Secretary of State has revealed his hand only too clearly.

Mr. John Morris


Mr. Edwards

I have already said that I do not intend to give way to the right hon, and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Morris


The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We have only a few minutes left before the guillotine falls. Let us get on with it.

Mr. Edwards

I propose to conclude my remarks so that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales may reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham. I think that it would be a courtesy to that hon. Gentleman to allow the Minister to do so.

I am delighted to give way to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who always seeks to reply to debates sensibly and reasonably. But I shall not listen to the kind of point that was put by the Secretary of State for Wales about the Conservative Party when what he said was a travesty of the truth—in fact, a reverse of the truth. It is the Labour Party that seeks to dominate the Welsh people through the exercise of party patronage and the appointment of party hacks.

Mr. Alec Jones

The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) said that I am always sensible and reasonable when replying to debates. I wish that I had a few more minutes in which to speak so that I could show him how sensible and reasonable I can be. I recall that he tried this game in our debates in the Welsh Grand Committee when we discussed the Arts Council. On that occasion his remarks acted like a damp squib. He knew then, as he does now, that what he says is nonsense.

I wish to refer to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), who is concerned about the future existence of the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company. It is a technical problem, and when my hon. Friend said that he hoped I could dispel his doubts he flattered me because I have already attempted to answer him in a long and complicated letter. I know that if I were to try to cover those matters in two or three minutes I should fail.

Because ministerial powers of appointment are retained, the Welsh Water Authrity does not meet the criteria for being subsumed under Clause 62. Therefore, it will remain an independent body in regard to the water company. The Welsh Water Authority cannot be subsumed under the Bill as it stands. Therefore, the water company itself cannot be subsumed. There are no ministerial appointments to the water companies, and so long as that situation obtains no subsuming under Clause 62 can possibly occur. Therefore, in regard to the company's fear that it could be subsumed by the powers in the Bill, I assure my hon. Friend that that is not the case and that adequate remedies and precautions are built into the Bill. In the Government's view, my hon. Friend's amendments are not necessary. Amendment No. 217 would not prevent the devolving of water functions. In fact, it would make it extremely difficult to introduce practical arrangements to deal with the divided responsibilities of the water authority, part going to the Assembly and part to the Government.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept this brief reply as an assurance that as the Bill stands neither the Welsh National Water Development Authority nor the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company can be subsumed—

It being Nine o'clock, The CHAIRMAN proceeded, pursuant to the Order [16th November] and the Resolution [1st March], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

The CHAIRMAN then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the Business to be concluded at Nine o'clock.

Amendments made: No. 94, in page 64, line 23, at end insert— 'The British Waterways Board. The Transport Act 1962 (c.46), section 1'.

No. 95, in page 65, line 13, at end insert— 'The Inland Waterways Amenity The Transport Act 1968 (c.73), section 110'. Advisory Council.—[Mr. John Smith.]

Schedue 7, as amended, agreed to.

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