§ 3.50 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
I beg to move,That the draft Anglian Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
§ Mr. Speaker
It may be for the convenience of the House if we discuss the other water authority motions at the same time.
§ Mr. Howell
The reason for these draft orders is to try to tidy up some of the difficulties brought about by the creation of the Water Act and the desire of Labour Members to make water authorities as accountable as possible to the water users to whom they are responsible.
The great difficulty created by the Water Act 1973 was that it was not based on any known unit of democratic accountability. This was discussed at the time, and many of us drew attention to the dangers inherent in the administrative structure proposed for the water industry. For example, the Severn-Trent water authority starts at the Welsh boundary and goes right across the country, stretching to Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The same argument can be applied to the Anglian water authority and the Thames water authority. Of course, no unit of local or regional government has ever been conceived that has had to deal with such a situation, or accept responsibility for an organisation of that size and complexity.
In the Water Act, we managed to get agreement that at least half the members of water authorities should be elected from local authorities. I think that 51 per cent, of the membership of all water authorities is composed of local authority representatives. During the passage of the measure many of us predicted much of the troubles and financial difficulties that many of our citizens face, especially in large towns. For example, the citizens of Birmingham and many other large cities have in past years paid to provide an excellent and wholesome water supply, but, exactly as we predicted, they had to pay again, as a result of reorganisation, 1323 to provide an excellent and wholesome water supply for the citizens of other parts of these tremendous regions who had not previously enjoyed such a facility. It was even worse on the drainage and sewerage side.
That is one of the reasons why cities now face considerably more than the average charges in most of these regional water authority areas. Even worse—we protested about this at the time—the great cities of England, which previously had their own water authorities, were denied even a single representative, as of right, on the water authority. For example, Birmingham never had a member, as of right, on the Severn-Trent water authority.
During the past five years, in the exercise of my stewardship, I attempted to right that situation by ensuring that in regard to ministerial nominations I would appoint somebody who represented each of the cities. However, that is totally unsatisfactory. These orders seek to go a tiny step in that direction, in that each of the major cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol will at last have at least one voice, as of right, on their appropriate regional water authority.
This is not much, but it acknowledges the importance of those cities within the water industry. We would have hoped to have agreement from both sides of the House to introduce our White Paper proposals, which attempted to eradicate some of the worst excesses of the system that we inherited when we came into office. As I have said, the proposed increases are modest. There are only 24 new seats altogether. We have consulted the water industries and the local authority associations. They have all agreed with the proposals and believe that they go some way towards removing the hardest grievances, so that most cities over a certain size will have at least one representative sitting on the water authorities.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones (Daventry)
The right hon. Gentleman is well known for his continuing criticisms of the Water Act and of the reorganisation of the whole of the water cycle, which followed our legislation in 1973. There is a certain inconsistency in much of what he said this 1324 afternoon. Although these are minor measures, I do not think that they constitute a significant step towards a better and more effective recognition of the consumer interest. I recognise the importance of that. The Minister said that as an objective the consumer interest should be protected. I believe that there are more effective ways of doing so than is now suggested.
The right hon. Gentleman criticised the areas upon which the regional water authorities are organised. I know that he has consistently criticised this, but there is no suggestion in the Government's White Paper—Cmnd. 6876, of July 1977—that the present Government have any intention of altering the arrangements significantly. As I understand it, instead of leaving it on a regional basis, they propose that water should become a nationalised industry. However, that does not alter the regional organisation of the authorities based on river basins. Indeed, in paragraph 75 of the White Paper the Government say:Integrated river basin management will remain, now and in the long term, the basis for regional organisation.The right hon. Gentleman was critical of the Severn-Trent water authority, but that is in contradiction of what the White Paper says, because it goes on to state thatAlthough the existing regional structure is not immutable, the Government have no plans to change it substantially at this stageTherefore, I do not really follow the general criticism which the right hon. Gentleman continues to bring to bear. He is carping in his criticism. I have heard it on many occasions. As he has said, the interest of local government was recognised. It was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) who was instrumental in ensuring a 51 per cent, representation by local government members on the regional water authorities. Indeed, paragraph 76 of the White Paper refers tolocal accountability and the need to maintain links with local authorities in the provision of essential services to the community, and, on the other hand, the water authorities' regional and national role, with a stress on the importance of special skills in a major industry and the representation of a wide range of interests.There we have the two factors that go into the make-up of the regional water 1325 authority councils, namely, local government and those who bring special skills to this highly technical industry.
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about the large cities. For example, paragraph 78 of the White Paper states thatsome major cities, including several with a long history of achievement in water services, are not directly represented on the water authorities.I know that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do something about that in the statutory instruments, but they by no means serve the purpose that he sets out to achieve.
Only a few of the great cities will be represented. I am not sure about the criteria that have been used to decide which large cities and district councils shall be ensured representation. Some of them are named, and some of them are left, presumably to county councils, to determine. It will be interesting to know whether the criteria will be based on area, population, density of population or level of water charges. There is no fundamental purpose in the proposal.
The Government's intention has been criticised. In a document the Country Landowners' Association states thatthe Water Act, 1973 placed express new duties on them "—the regional water authorities—including a water supply duty, a duty to maintain, improve and develop fisheries, responsibility for supervising all land drainage matters, and a sewerage and sewage disposal duty which potentially conflicts with their pollution control duty. In this multi-functional role, the minority of members appointed by the Ministers play a part of special importance".The memorandum goes on to say thatLocal authority members are not required to have any relevant experience or expertise.I am sure that local authority representatives who are appointed will have an interest in the work of regional water authorities. If that were not the case, it would be useless for them to appear on councils. We do not criticise the contribution of those with special knowledge. In another place Baroness David said that appointments on four regional water authorities arrangements have been made to represent consumer interests. On each regional water authority there should be 1326 at least one representative of consumer interests. That would be a more positive approach to protect consumer interests instead of leaving it open-ended.
It has also been suggested that the ie-gional water authority should appoint, on the basis of a county, district council or group of district councils, a consumer committee to represent consumer interests and directly influence the policies of the regional water authority. Such an approach would be more constructive and would more effectively serve the right hon. Gentleman's purpose than these proposals. I do not criticise them, but I question what lies behind them. I believe that we should look for more effective solutions.
There is concern in local government about the non-accountability of regional water authorities. I recognise the concern of the Association of District Councils, and some of the right hon. Gentleman's proposals will have come directly from its representations. Local government members are essentially fighting for their own corner, which is right and proper.
I hope that this short debate will point the way to more effective representation of consumer interests, which will not alter the purposes for which the statutory instruments are designed. If consumer interests could be more effectively recognised when making the appointments, it would be a useful addition.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
I do not precisely follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) but I wish him a contented retirement. It is interesting to note that none of the Conservative Members responsible for inflicting the 1973 Act on this country is present in the Chamber.
There are two matters that seriously affect my constituency. On the Yorkshire order, the metropolitan district of Rother-ham that entirely covers my constituency may only have a representative one-third of the time, and its population is 250,000 and growing. Sheffield is guaranteed one member and may have another, and its population is 500,000 and shrinking. I do not wish to exacerbate local rivalries, but that arrangement is not satisfactory.
I am more seriously concerned with the Severn-Trent authority order. Thousands of my constituents pay water rates 1327 to Severn-Trent. Because of the hydro-logical arrangements that govern water authority areas, they are situated in the Severn-Trent authority area. Schedule 2 contains no reference to the South Yorkshire metropolitan county or the Rother-ham metropolitan district. Approximately 50,000 of my constituents in the Rother-ham metropolitan district are within the Severn-Trent water authority area, and I am entitled to ask the Minister for an explanation and, if necessary, ask him to reintroduce the order after the general election with proper reference to the Rotherham area, and my constituency in particular.
On previous occasions in this House I have criticised the Severn-Trent authority, but it has much improved in recent years. It is too vague, and far too big, if part of Yorkshire, which is covered by the authority, is to be ignored. In Britain we need proper regionalisation, and the water function could be administered by those regions. The absence of reference to the county of South Yorkshire in the Severn-Trent order considerably strengthens that argument. I hope that my right hon. Friend can reassure my 50,000 constituents who are involved before he departs this afternoon.
There is a further problem of the representation of many hundreds of thousands of people who are not connected to the main sewer. The hon. Member for Daventry referred to consumer interests. Many people have been placed at a dreadful disadvantage because of the muddle of the 1973 Act. Over the vcars my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment have sought to ease the position and have produced a consultative document that may provide the basis for a decent administration in the future. A Bill has been prepared, and it would be interesting to hear my right hon. Friend's comments, but until we have a Bill the water authorities should have a representative to put forward those interests. Some people have properties which are not connected to main sewers and depend on cesspools. The majority of the population have main sewerage as of right. They give it little thought, and it is covered by normal rate contributions.
The hon. Member for Daventry did not refer to that aspect. The Conservative 1328 Party is embarrassed by the fact that many hundreds of thousands of people in rural, and perhaps not so rural, Britain have that appalling disadvantage, and it showed little interest. The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) learnt a great deal when he contested the Rother Valley constituency in 1970. He is one of the few Conservative Members who have shown any interest in the subject, despite that party's pretence at shouldering the burden of interest in rural Britain and its problems.
It is a serious problem for rural Britain, certainly for about 300 properties in my constituency. I am particularly keen to ensure that my constituency and those 300 homes not connected to main sewerage are not deliberately ignored in the order.
I confess that I was grateful to the Government when they sought to compensate for the appalling muddle that the authority inherited by removing value added tax from the charges that were levied on the unfortunate people whose homes were not connected to the main drains. The mere easement of VAT, which should never have been imposed in the first place—that was another result of the Conservative Government's activities—has not relieved us of the burden of ensuring that those people have a voice on the water authorities. They have to pay very heavily for the services that local authorities provide in association with the water authorities. I believe that their predicament is so serious that it must be resolved before the next Parliament is very old.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us that a decent Bill has been prepared and will be introduced before long. I hope that he will satisfy the metropolitan borough of Rotherham by assuring us that it will have reasonable representation on the Yorkshire water authority. Also, I hope that he will satisfy my 50,000 constituents who appear to have been ignored in the Severn-Trent order. I hope that their interests will be considered and that they will be able to put forward a nominee, despite the fact that there is no reference to it in the order.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I wish to intervene for only about two minutes. I welcome the orders, although 1329 they do not appear to help my constituency very much. However, I gather that it has always been reckoned to be over-represented in that it already has two members on the Southern water authority. I gather that today's order will do something for Basingstoke and possibly East-leigh.
We are still not really tackling the problem of proper democratic representation on the regional water authorities. I accept that, as a result of the devolution Bills, the idea of some sort of regional structure in this country is probably out for the time being. Perhaps we shall have to build on the counties again.
I should like to put forward a suggestion which already exists on a very ad hoc basis. Representatives of the various regional water authorities come to the House about once a year and go to an upstairs Committee Room by courtesy of one Member of Parliament. If one is lucky, one gets an invitation, and for about 45 minutes one can ask questions. It is a pretty unsatisfactory process. The water authority representatives come well armed with all the answers. I do not think that it does much good.
For many years we have had in this House Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees. Therefore, why can we not have regional committees of Members of Parliament, and write into legislation the provision that the water authorities must by law come to the House and answer the questions of those Members who represent their areas? In that way it will not be left to just one Member of Parliament, who happens to know the chairman of his local water authority, to arrange a visit. Every hon. Member whose constituency lies within a water authority area is entitled to be on the committee and cross-examine that authority's representatives on what has been done over the past three or four months.
Recently we have heard horrifying stories about some of the charges being levied by the water authorities, particularly on commercial interests. An abattoir in my constituency has gone bust, and I can well understand why. It was paying about £40 a day for drainage charges and a similar amount for water. These are matters that we would like to question more closely. Why is there a need 1330 for such huge charges to be levied? I put these suggestions forward as an interim idea for getting more response to elected Members. At least let hon. Members of this House play a greater part.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
I wish to pick out the statutory instrument dealing with the Yorkshire water authority. It ill behoves Conservatives to talk about consumer representatives when the West Yorkshire metropolitan county council has, for two years, deliberately refused the kind offer of the Department of the Environment to finance a consumer representative office in Keighley. All it had to do was find a building and the Department would have done the rest.
The reorganisation of 1973 was highly undemocratic. It was put through by the then Conservative Government. If consumer representation is a matter of such concern, one wonders why it was not raised in 1973. The fact is that once again the Conservative Party pushed through an undemocratic organisation without consumer representation and then discovered somewhat belatedly that consumers exist.
I am concerned that in the schedule the authorities of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield have only two representatives between them on the Yorkshire water authority. But the order represents an improvement upon the very poor arrangements which the original order introduced when there was no representation from Bradford at all.
Bradford holds a particular place because it is the centre of the wool scouring industry and therefore it has particular effluent and discharge problems, which cause some concern. I would have thought that there was a case for some representation directly from Bradford in view of the city's importance to the centre of the West Riding worsted textile industry. It is a matter of considerable concern that the wool scouring industry faces increased charges. At present the National Water Council is considering the charges for industrial effluent with a view to calculating them on a new basis— on content rather than volume. This needs to be examined, and on that basis surely a representative from Bradford would play an important part in such a detailed technical matter.
1331 As I have said, there are developments on the horizon in the wool scouring industry which might reduce charges by the Yorkshire water authority for the effluent. There is also the low-flow process, which is being installed now on an experimental basis in a Keighley firm, Sir James Hill and Sons Limited. However, it may be as long as two years before the process is brought to an operational stage. Therefore, interim measures must be examined carefully by the reconstituted body in order to ensure that the industry's suggestion that it might move to the coast is shelved, because the scouring industry provides many jobs.
Of course, the industry faces subsidised competition from France and I am sure that the Yorkshire water authority is well aware of this. This competition comes from the Roubaix-Tourcoing area, where the Agence du Bassin provides extensive subsidies to the French scouring industry. This places the British industry at a disadvantage. A working party examined this matter and reported that the French subsidy was about £750,000 a year. An important point is that this subsidy should be phased out by 1981. We are all members of the Common Market, but it seems that from time to time France does not quite play the role that the other EEC members expect of her. I am not convinced that the subsidies will be phased out, and I will not be so convinced until I have the evidence in front of me.
I am concerned about the position of Bradford and other parts of the Yorkshire water authority in relation to water supplies for first-time connections. Incredible though it may seem, only two and a half miles from the centre of Keighley, there are houses not connected to mains water supply.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. I allowed some latitude to a previous contributor to the debate when we got on to the subject of connections to water supply and other problems both of supply and drainage, interesting though they may be. However, we must relate this debate to the composition of the water authority concerned. I do not wish to be difficult, but we must obey the rules of the House.
§ Mr. Cryer
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you are absolutely right. I am arguing that these issues should 1332 be raised by representatives from Bradford on the Yorkshire water authority. I said orginally that I was disappointed that in the schedule to the order Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield have only two representatives, whereas Leeds has a separate representative of its own.
I was seeking to point out that Bradford was an area with special problems which do not apply to Leeds. I mentioned the wool scouring industry, which is centred on Bradford. My remarks were fundamental and germane to the order. I argue that the order could be adapted and improved by the representation of Bradford on the Yorkshire water authority and by alteration to the first schedule.
In this context I argue that the first-time connection to mains supply is important. Membership of the Yorkshire water authority is very much related to this subject. That authority believes that it is the task of the district councils to provide financial assistance for first-time connection, but the district councils argue that it is the task of the Yorkshire water authority. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments as to how this conflict, which appears to be needlessly bureaucratic, will be resolved and how the interests of the district council, which in the case of Bradford appears to avoid any responsibility for assisting those who require first-time connection to the mains supply, will be reconciled with membership of the Yorkshire water authority.
In practice, this will mean that some of my constituents in a place called Higher Row, Keighley, have been waiting years to be connected to water supply. Elderly people in the area have to cross a road during drought periods to obtain water from the supply to a horse trough. This is happening in the twentieth century—a period when £600 million has been spent in developing Concorde and when one of our allies has put men on the moon. I am sure that all this activity is useful, but I do not see what advantage we have gained from that exercise, except possibly the advent of non-stick frying pans.
This is a deplorable situation, and I hope that the newly constituted Yorkshire water authority will ensure that it carries out its duties and produces a formula to solve this problem. I hope the authority 1333 will ensure that my constituents and thousands of other people throughout Yorkshire will not be caught in a morass of bureaucratic indecision and will be provided with connection to water supply. This is not all that much to ask.
I hope that the discussion on this order will contribute in some small measure to the resolution of these issues and will improve the conditions of thousands of people. However, I have my reservations on this matter.
On 3 May the nation will be voting in a general election and at the same time the local elections are to be held. Many people have raised their eyebrows at this decision, as though it will produce great difficulties. However, I believe that there is no reason for not developing multi-elections of this nature. In future, why can we not elect representatives to the Yorkshire water authority and all the other water authorities, instead of having indirect appointees who are unknown to the local population and who are never seen by those whom they are supposed to serve? Two representatives are to serve an area with a population in excess of 1½ million. Their names are virtually unknown when appointed. Surely if the representatives of local water authorities and regional health authorities are elected they will have a direct connection with the people that they serve. People will know their names, because they will appear on the ballot paper.
I hope that this is the way in which the Labour Government will act. There is to be an experiment in multi-voting on 3 May. Let us continue that experiment in future and bring in multi-voting for some of these appointee bodies, which certainly need an infusion of democracy.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)
I wish to make a brief contribution to the debate. I do not want to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), but I hope that his local newspaper will keep a political balance following his intervention. I hope that his opponent will have an equal opportunity to give his views on water authorities, so that there will be a nice balance in the local press. I hope that his local newspaper will note my remarks.
1334 I support my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) in seeking to give consumers greater opportunities to have their say about the activities of water authorities. It is all very well for Labour Members to knock consumer representation, but I remind them that I introduced a Ten Minute Bill to bring in a consumer council for water authorities. However, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) talked it out. He spoke violently against me because it happened to be the day on which the House was to debate Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman's idea was to prevent the Northern Ireland matter from being given a long debate. As a result, my Bill suffered. Let us be clear that it was Labour Members who prevented progress on my consumer Bill. That measure may or may not have become law, but I felt strongly enough about the matter to bring it before the House.
I had the honour some years ago to fight the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) in an election. We have exchanged views about water supply and I support all he said in his speech.
Let us have no hypocrisy about water authorities. It was entirely due to Labour Members that I was not given an opportunity to allow consumers to have a voice on those authorities. I am very much in favour of consumers having a voice on such bodies. They are large authorities. It was necessary to set them up because the sewerage system was falling into disrepair. Large capital sums must be raised to meet these bills, and it was necessary to have large authorities to fill that role.
My only grievance has always related to the method of charging. I am not against water authorities, but I am against the method of charging. If we had set up a water consumers' council, we might have had a better system of water charging. I intervene only to put that small grievance to the House by drawing attention to that lost opportunity, and also to support my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry in seeking better representation for consumers.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I wish to refer briefly to the order 1335 referring to the Severn-Trent water authority. I, too, intend to be brief in my remarks.
The Severn-Trent water authority is probably the most despised and discredited public organisation in the eyes of the citizens of Birmingham. It is a profligate spender, there is no check upon it, and there is no effective democracy within it. It has offices galore and its members constantly vote expenditure for carpets and triple-glazing to be installed. I have corresponded with the Minister on some of these issues. At one time it purchased land from its own chairman. I am prepared to admit that there was no jiggery pokery or corruption in that matter. However, when there is no public accountability and a practice like that comes to light, hon. Members cannot raise matters of detail regarding water authorities. The members of the water authority are not elected and representative in the way that is set out in the order.
Those sorts of problem have arisen in the last five years since the Severn-Trent water authority came into being following the legislation of the previous Conservative Government. They have been sad years for the people in Birmingham. I am surprised that there are no Welsh nationalist Members here today. It is well known that for many years Birmingham had its own supply of water because our city forefathers had the foresight to build the dams and reservoirs in the valleys of Wales. The second largest city in the country took upon itself that responsibility. Since 1974, my constituents in Birmingham and others have had to pay to ensure that other parts of the West Midlands receive a water supply, having paid for their own water supply many years ago.
It is grossly unfair that the water rate in Birmingham city has increased by leaps and bounds but the service has been no better. Birmingham has forked out for areas such as Solihull which never took that responsibility—not just in water but in other matters as well. Local government reorganisation brought that to the fore. The citizens of Birmingham carried on their backs the people of Soli-hull and Sutton Coldfield, who took no responsibility for water supply and waste disposal.
The citizens of Birmingham have no voice on the water authority. Therefore, 1336 I am pleased to see in the order that Birmingham is entitled as of right to one of the 48 seats. It is possible that Birmingham could be entitled to more than one seat. I hope that, when the metropolitan districts allocate their two seats between them, Birmingham will get an additional seat. The Birmingham ratepayers, having carried the other district authorities and ratepayers on their backs for the past few years, should have more than one voice in the new, reconstituted authority. When the West Midlands county council appoints its two members I hope that one of them—again—will be from the Birmingham city council. Therefore, Birmingham will receive three seats as of right in the new authority of 48 members.
I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that, even though the reconstituted authorities will give to the citizens of Birmingham a greater voice, because of the pressure the House puts on local councillors by setting up bodies like this to which local authorities can appoint representatives there will be a problem. Not all local councillors have an equal share of the burden of the work of their local authority. Those who are most active in pushing forward the needs and aspirations of their constituents become overloaded with work, like hon. Members. It is well known that the full-time Members of this House, who number about 250, carry the rest on their backs as far as membership of Committees is concerned.
The danger is that those appointed by the local authority in Birmingham will be those who carry a greater share of the burden. If that happens, they will not be able to give the full time attention that is required to watch Sir William Dugdale and his machinations in running the Severn-Trent water authority. I support the concept of direct elections to these public bodies because I see no way of reorganising the water system in a way that ignores geographical boundaries such as the water basins of our great rivers. The Severn-Trent authority is unusual because of the vast area that it covers. However, I accept that any other split would make no sense in terms of water management. I do not think that the Severn-Trent authority can be used as a basis for local government reorganisation. It could not be made the area of 1337 a regional council, for example, because parts of Powys, Salop, Derbyshire, Hereford and Worcester and the great conurbation of Birmingham have nothing in common.
There is no reason why the membership of the Severn-Trent authority cannot become directly elected. I should like to see one to three people in Birmingham standing for elections to the water authority. That would be a marvellous concept in extending democracy. When the buck comes back to this House, there is no time within our procedures, either in the Chamber or in Standing Committee, to keep a watch on these public bodies. The Severn-Trent water authority is a public body which needs close inspection. In the last five years, since I have been in this House, I do not think that our procedures have been up to the mark.
I hope that, when the new Labour Government are formed after 3 May, my right hon. Friend will come forward with proposals for a fundamental reorganisation of the water authorities and the Water Act. It is no longer any good to say that the Tories brought in the Act—that was six years ago. We have been prevented from bringing forward proposals because of the minority position of the Labour Government and the problems of the minority parties.
During and after the election I hope that my right hon. Friend will make it abundantly clear that we shall put democracy into the water authorities. If it has to be done piecemeal, my candidate for making a start is the Severn-Trent water authority and its chairman. The post of chairman should be earned by election also. It is wrong that Sir William Dugdale is appointed by Government Ministers. I make no imputations about the motives of anyone, but I believe that chairmen—particularly Sir William Dugdale—should be elected by ratepayers. If that was the case with the Severn-Trent water authority, it would boot him out.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
In replying to the interesting and sometimes startling debate, I shall try to deal with all the points that have been raised. I should like to say to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones), who has been shadowing 1338 for five years on this subject and who has crossed my path many times, that I wish him well on his retirement. He has always been an agreeable and fair opponent, and I thank him for his courtesy and understanding—although I have not always appreciated our1 disagreements. He has been of great assistance in considering water industry matters. I am sure that those in the industry as well as myself wish him well for the future.
The hon. Member for Daventry made some criticisms. He said that local authorities do not represent consumers. The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) made the same point. In a sense they are right, but, on the other hand, the elected councillors of local authorities are much more likely to be in touch with consumers than almost anyone else. I should like to see consumers' representatives on water authorities, but there are now four regional water authorities which have one of the Minister's nominees specifically appointed to look after consumer interests. It is our intention, as and when vacancies occur, to have such representatives in each water authority. I hope that the House never makes the mistake of confusing the consumer industry with representatives of consumers. I have never made that mistake. It is important to understand that distinction.
The water industry has not had a consumers' council in the classical sense of the gas and electricity industries. In the drought it was necessary for me to consult all sorts of representatives. I created my own consumers' council by asking representatives of the CBI, the TUC, the local authorities' associations, the National Farmers' Union and Mr. Michael Young, of the Consumer Council, to come together. We met once or twice a week, so that I could take urgent counsel with them and determine priorities during the drought.
That council worked extremely well. It was not a consumers' council in the traditional sense, but it included representatives of all strata of British public life. If we had had the opportunity to introduce legislation, I would have liked to make that sort of arrangement a permanent feature of the industry. Since those on that council represented structures of all the great organisations in this 1339 country, it would have been an interesting way to proceed. I mention it in this valedictory speech only so that I or someone else can take it up in future.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, much needs to be done by way of organic change within the industry. We all agree that we cannot go back to square one and start from where we were before the reorganistation. The tremendous upheaval proved to be extremely expensive for ratepayers and serious action is needed.
The Minister of Agriculture and I chaired a working party for about 18 months because we were so concerned about the development of the water industry. The reorganised system had been in operation for only two years, but it was already causing considerable problems.
We produced a White Paper and hoped to be able to introduce legislation, which I would have regarded as important. That was during the time of the Lib-Lab pact but, unfortunately, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), who was the Liberals' spokesman on the matters, could not agree that we ought to introduce the Bill. The only reason why it was not introduced is that we would not have been able to get it through the House and it would have been a waste of parliamentary time for us to try.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
The Minister will accept that the two main points of controversy in the measure that he wished to bring forward were the takeovers of the private water companies and the British Waterways Board. Those were the matters on which we differed strongly.
§ Mr. Howell
I have always believed that the industry should not be out on a limb and outside a major industry. I believe that it will be at risk in that position. My proposals would have provided for its future. If the Conservatives are returned to power, with their policy of slashing public expenditure, the board will be an extremely vulnerable institution. I was trying to protect it. I have not been given enough credit for what I was trying to do, namely, to save the industry from that possible danger.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight claims that the White Paper was a 1340 nationalisation solution. The trouble with the water industry is that the Tories do not know how to nationalise anything.
Mr. Russell Ken (Feltham and Heston)
They are short of practice.
§ Mr. Howell
Yes, and I am afraid that they will be rather rusty for a long time to come. They created 10 nationalised industries under their reorganisation. Each regional water authority is an independent nationalised body, and that makes nonsense in terms of the strategic planning that must take place for the long-term provision of our water supply, with the gigantic costs involved in reservoirs, and so on. The White Paper was an attempt to get central control and strategic planning which would have been economic and worth while.
The hon. Member for Daventry chided me a little for repeating my criticisms of the reorganisation carried out by the last Conservative Government, but my criticisms concern the structure of the industry and the almost impossible task, in terms of managerial functions, as well as democratic control, that the water industry had to face when it was reorganised. I do not criticise the performance of the industry. Bearing in mind all those difficulties, it has done extraordinarily well. That has been demonstrated during the drought and on the other occasions on which I have had cause to express my great appreciation of the industry's achievements. I take this opportunity to repeat that appreciation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) asked about charges for cesspool emptying. Our proposals fell because we were not able to introduce a Bill based on the White Paper. However, work on preparing the legislation is well advanced and we hope to bring it in after the election.
We proposed that householders should get a subsidy of 50 per cent, from the Government towards the expensive cost of emptying cesspools and that the water authorities should be obliged to carry out that service. That was a fair and reasonable compromise.
My hon. Friend also asked why his constituency was not included in the schedule outlining the representation on the Severn-Trent authority. The representation formula is complicated and 1341 provides that where less than one-sixth of the population of a county is within a water authority area there should be no local authority representation. I am told that Rotherham has less than one-sixth of the population of South Yorkshire and therefore does not qualify under the formula, which was laid down in the Water Act 1973.
§ Mr. Hardy
I recognise that responsibility for this outrageous situation does not rest with my right hon. Friend. However, about 50,000 people in my constituency are the responsibility of the Severn-Trent authority and they have no representation on that body, either democratically elected or appointed. It is outrageous that South Yorkshire is utterly ignored. All sorts of authorities, some relatively new and inexperienced and a number very small, are mentioned in the order. When my right hon. Friend returns to office after the election, will he ensure that the interests of South Yorkshire are not grossly ignored, as they have been as a result of the activities of the last Conservative Government?
§ Mr. Howell
If the Government are returned to office with an overall majority, there are a number of matters that we shall look at. I assure my hon. Friend that his concern will be one.
The hon. Member for Daventry quoted the White Paper at me and used the phrase "at this time", or similar words. The White Paper was drafted in the light of the parliamentary situation with which we had to contend at that time. I do not think that we shall be able to depart much from it, but we shall look at it afresh if we have an overall majority in the House.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight kindly acknowledged the difficulties of the industry. The Liberals have always supported us in our criticisms of the Water Act. The hon. Gentleman talked about the need for regionalism. As I said in my opening speech, an industry established on the geographical and hydrological concept on which the water industry was established is bound to run into every conceivable problem of democratic accountability.
I put forward an alternative scheme when we were discussing the Water Act 1973. Unfortunately, I could not per- 1342 suade Conservative Members, who were then in Government, to look at it. If anyone is interested, I will be glad to explain later what that scheme was. The more I think about it, the more wise I consider the scheme I put forward.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) was a Minister, he and I were dealing with the problems of the wool scouring industry in Bradford. In my judgment, my hon. Friend, both in his ministerial capacity and also as a Member of Parliament for the area, showed a tremendous insight into these problems and took several initiatives. Regrettably, we have not been able to persuade the Yorkshire water authority to give the priority to the Bradford wool scouring industry which both he and I think it should have been given. Since my hon. Friend ceased to be a Minister, I have again seen the chairman of the water authority to express my view that it should give more attention to the wool industry in Yorkshire along the lines that my hon. Friend and I were jointly proposing.
I have not been able to persuade the water authority down that road. My hon. Friend's point that Bradford should be represented on the water authority as a right becomes extremely valid. This is not the case at present. There is a criterion that only cities with 500,000 population can be represented. I am afraid that Bradford fails under that criterion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley also talked about the first-time link-ups. If a local authority is prepared to requisition a link-up of houses for the first time, as it is entitled to do, the regional water authority has to provide the link-up. The local authority accepts some financial obligation and there is also a grant from my Department. The answer to this problem is for the local authority to requisition on the Yorkshire water authority. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is uncivilised and almost obscene these days for any household that wants to be linked to the water main system to be unable to have that facility.
I gather that my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr is not too keen on the chairman of the Severn-Trent Water Authority. I would like to refer to the land question. I looked 1343 into the matter and I was absolutely convinced that there was no irregularity of any sort. The proposal to buy the land had existed for a long time. It had to be bought because of flooding. There was a strong case for buying the land, whoever owned it. The purchase was necessary to enable proper drainage and flood work in that area. As one would expect, the chairman of that authority withdrew from the authority during the whole time that the question was under consideration. I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting—I do not think that he is—that there was any impropriety in that negotiation.
§ Mr. Rooker
No. Of course, I was not suggesting that. I made that clear in my speech. What stuck in people's gullets was the enormous increase in the value of the land because it was being purchased by the water authority. It was only scrubland, with a value of £1,500 an acre, yet it went up to £5,000 an acre. That made people angry, and rightly suspicious.
§ Mr. Howell
I can well understand that point. It is true. It applies every time any public authority wishes to take action. It is one of the arguments about betterment value and all sorts of other proposals. If my hon Friend is dealing with that point, I entirely agree with him. It is the community activity that enhances the value of such land, and the community has to pay through the nose for it That has always greatly concerned those on this side of the House.
I hope that my hon. Friend will take into account that one problem relating to water authorities is that 51 per cent, of all members are local authority members. When local authorities are Conservative-controlled, this has the effect of making almost every water authority in the country a Conservative-controlled authority. That point is not sufficiently understood. I have a lot of sympathy sometimes with the chairman of the Severn-Trent authority having to deal with that sort of membership, although he comes from no political stable himself. I will not go further except to say that I know he has considerable difficulties and that he does his best to overcome them.
I have redeemed my promise of giving Birmingham and the other great cities one seat. I still believe that is totally 1344 inadequate. If there is one matter for which the last Conservative Government will be remembered for all time by the ratepayers and taxpayers, who are still suffering, it is the ludicrous reorganisation of local government and water and health services. I take Birmingham as an example. There was one set of clerks, one treasurer's department, one surveyor's department, one recreation department, each administering all these matters. Four bureaucracies are now foisted upon us for which we are having to pay. We had previously to pay for only one. I hope that electors in the Midlands will understand that the high cost of local government and water charges is the result of this bureaucracy for which they are having to pay.
§ Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)
The Labour Government have had five years in which to change the system. They have not done so.
§ Mr. Howell
I have said many times at this Dispatch Box in the last five years that if the hon. Gentleman would give an undertaking to support such a proposal, we would have introduced it. I conclude on a non-controversial and realistic note. We now have four sets of bureaucracy in Birmingham—a county council, a district council, a water authority and a health authority—all of which have to be paid for and none as efficient overall as the old Birmingham county borough council. Let us hope that we can return to that efficiency. I regret that we cannot do so today.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Anglian Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With the agreement of the House, I propose to put together the Questions on the remaining orders.
That the draft Northumbrian Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft North West Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft Severn-Trent Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft Southern Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft South West Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft Thames Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft Wessex Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.
That the draft Yorkshire Water Authority Constitution (Amendment) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 March, be approved.—[Mr. Denis Howell.]