HC Deb 07 November 1978 vol 957 cc684-6
Mr. Powell (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the unofficial action by employees of the water services in Counties Armagh and Down, and the steps which he has taken to restore normal water supplies and protect the public interest in the meantime.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

Water supplies in parts of Counties Armagh and Down have been interrupted over the past few weeks as a result of the accumulative effects of industrial action which has been continuing since October. The industrial action has been taken by some manual workers who are objecting to the delay in introducing productivity schemes which would have given them the same earnings potential as the majority of manual workers in the water services in Great Britain.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has met the officials of the unions concerned on several occasions in an effort to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, these discussions have not so far met with any success, but they will continue and every effort will be made, within the constraints of Government policies, to bring about an early end to the dispute.

In the meantime, officials are attempting to maintain the water supply system in the area in order to minimise disruption, and standpipes have been erected to ensure adequate supplies of water for domestic purposes.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman fully informed about the hardships which have been suffered during these weeks by my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), including the closing of schools and hospital wards, severe losses in agriculture and in particular hardships to older people? Will he appoint a specific officer in his Department to be responsible from hour to hour for watching the position as it affects consumers and co-ordinating any emergency action? Finally, without prejudice to any civil liability which may have arisen, will he note that my hon. Friends and I will be urging him in due course to consider whether those who have been deprived of water supply are entitled to a rebate upon the water charges which they are paying?

Mr. Concannon

I am pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman that agreement has been reached that water supplies to hospitals will be maintained. The Department of Education and area boards are now busily advising schools on how best to cope with the situation. We are kept very well informed of the situation. There are, of course, action parties, as it were, within the Department dealing with this.

The Under-Secretary of State has been very busy and flew back there on Sunday afternoon to have a meeting about this. He is, of course, holding himself available at all times to meet and discuss the situation.

Mr. Molyneaux

Will the Minister of State bear in mind that, in addition to the very serious loss and hardship caused to the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the consequences for the whole of the Province would be very serious indeed if this dispute were prolonged and allowed to spread to certain other key areas?

Mr. Concannon

The problem about the dispute—I take the point made by the hon. Gentleman—is obtaining the agreement of all parties. That agreement is necessary for the introduction of the productivity scheme. Until we get all-party agreement on that, we cannot put the productivity scheme into being. We are, therefore, making a £4 a week interim payment to the workers.