Lords amendment: After clause 5, in page 4, line 34, at end insert:
(1) Where an escape of water, however caused, from a communication pipe or main statutory water undertakers causes loss or damage, the undertakers shall be liable, except as otherwise provided in this section, for the loss or damage.
(2) Statutory water undertakers shall not incur any liability under subsection (1) above if the escape was due wholly to the fault of the person who suffered the loss or damage or of any servant, agent or contractor of his.
(3) Statutory water undertakers shall not incur any liability under subsection (1) above in respect of any loss or damage suffered by any excepted undertakers for which they would not be liable apart from that subsection.
(4) The Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945, the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and the Limitation Act 1980 shall apply in relation to any loss or damage for which statutory water undertakers are liable under this section, but which is not due to their fault, as if it were due to their fault.
(5) Nothing in subsection (1) above affects any entitlement which statutory water undertakers may have to recover contribution under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978; and for the purposes of that Act, any loss for which statutory water undertakers are liable under that subsection shall be treated as if it were damage.
(6) Where statutory water undertakers are liable, under any enactment or agreement passed or made before the coming into force of this section, to make a payment in respect of any loss or damage, they shall not incur liability under subsection (1) above in respect of the same loss or damage.
(7) In this section—
(8) This section shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.
§ Mr. Giles Shaw
I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.
1043 As the House will recall, when we considered the Bill on Report we undertook to introduce an amendment to provide for compensation when individuals suffered loss or damage from escapes of water from water mains. The new clause, which was introduced into the Bill in another place. fulfils that obligation.
When we last considered this matter we looked at the principles closely and I explained why the Government had agreed to introduce this amendment and why it should, in our view, for the moment at least, be confined to escapes of water from mains and communication pipes.
Our intention was, I think, widely welcomed not only on both sides of the House but elsewhere, and I do not think I need take up much time in explaining it. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) argued persuasively that the principle should also be introduced to the sewerage system. I agreed to his suggestion that I should receive an all-party delegation, including outside interests, such as the National Farmers' Union, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and others, to discuss the matter further. I have written to the hon. Gentleman today about this.
As the House will recognise, the new clause imposes on statutory water undertakers a strict liability for escapes of water. That is to say, it makes clear that water undertakers are liable except in the circumstances specified in the clause. But we have not introduced many limits. We have provided that where it is wholly the fault of the person suffering the damage, or his servant, agent or contractor, no liability should rest on the water undertakers. This is the effect of subsection (2).
Subsection (4) provides that where it is partly the fault of the person suffering the damage—r his servant, agent or contractor—he undertakers' liability should be diminished accordingly. Subsection (3) provides that no other statutory undertakers, highway authorities or allied body should benefit under this provision. The Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 exists to govern the relationships between these bodies and should be left undisturbed to do so. We also feel that it would be unreasonable that statutory water undertakers should have a higher degree of liability towards other undertakers than vice versa. That is the reason for subsection (3).
We believe that it would be wrong for people to be able to benefit both under this clause and under other provisions in respect of the same damage. Subsection (6) prevents that possibility.
Subsection (8) provides for the clause to be brought into force by order of the Secretary of State. The commencement date will be the subject of consultations with the water industry and will be set to enable water undertakers to make the necessary insurance and budgetary arrangements. Our initial view is that the provision should come into force on 1 April 1982.
Although the Bill did not contain this provision when introduced, I think that few here tonight will doubt its importance. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) and to the hon. Member for Edmonton and his hon. Friends for seeking to introduce it. I am sure that the Bill is greatly improved by the inclusion of this clause and, accordingly, I commend it to the House.
§ 10.8 pm
§ Mr. Denis Howell
I express first my appreciation to the Minister for the generous manner in which he corrected 1044 the error in our previous proceedings about the effect of the consequential costs of eliminating water for firefighting purposes to other water consumers and in particular, for confirming what I said on Third Reading, that it had been decided, particularly in the North-West, that the cost had to be borne right across the board, which would mean an additional 1 per cent. to the domestic consumer. The Minister's apology was typically magnanimous and is fully accepted by the Opposition. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting the record.
We are also grateful to the Government for accepting, even though in a limited form, the proposal that the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), supported by the Opposition, put forward, that where water main bursts occurred that caused damage to commercial, industrial and particularly domestic consumers and, I think, also agricultural consumers, the cost should be borne by the water authorities themselves. I am aware that the National Water Council has expressed serious reservations, not least because when these bursts occur they can be of such seriousness and of such a size that the cost to the water industry in rectifying them can be enormous. This may be a new principle being embarked on in our statutes.
I agree with the Government that it is right that the individual householder and citizen must be protected from the astronomical cost that may fall upon them through no fault of their own.
Certainly agriculture has cause for anxiety. The industry will be pleased that the Government have accepted its point of view, particularly since the Government believe that it is virtually impossible for farmers and others to insure against such eventualities. The Opposition believe that it is impossible for the domestic consumer in towns to insure against such a calamity. The cost of insuring or rectifying the damage done by burst water mains must be accepted by the water authorities—the statutory authorities—and not by the domestic consumer. The Opposition are therefore happy to endorse the proposal that the Government made in another place in that regard.
However, we are less than happy that burst sewers are not to be dealt with in the same way. I shall not weary the House by quoting what the Government spokesman said in the other place. In essence, he said that the principle could not be accepted because of the cost involved in the collapse of sewers. The cost is enormous. It is surely logical that if a person in one road is compensated for damage done by a burst water main, a person in the next road whose house or property is damaged by a broken sewer should be likewise compensated.
The collapse of sewers throughout the country is an enormous problem. I am glad that the Minister said that he will see a deputation. I hope that that will prove a constructive suggestion.
Having regard to what was said earlier by Mr. Speaker, I shall briefly explain the size of the problem. There are between 50 and 60 collapses of the sewer system every week in the country as a whole. In Manchester alone, there are two collapses each week. Our failure and inability to replace these antediluvian sewers is so great that I am told that the method of calculating the problem is now referred to in the technical jargon of "DDB" meaning a double-decker bus. So when a collapse in the sewer system—as happened recently in Manchester—is referred to as "five 1045 DDB", it means that the havoc created is equivalent to the size of five double-decker buses. The House will understand the enormity of the problem.
Manchester alone needs £870 million to replace the sewerage systems that have been there since the Industrial Revolution—some of them, I am told, since the French Revolution. A very serious situation has developed. It has been calculated by one of the officers of the National Water Council that the cost to the country of replacing its ageing, dilapidated and collapsing sewerage system is £5,000 million. That illustrates the considerable extent of the problem.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
The right hon. Gentleman referred to DDBs. I have never heard that jargon before. It can apply only to Manchester. I am sure that no other city would have such a designation for the troubles suffered from sewers. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that when I first went to my constituency, 15 years ago, the sewer just outside Whitstable was open on the surface and running out to sea? That has been put right by my influence—whether, also, under the influence of a Conservative or a Labour Government I forget. It was much more important to worry about whether it would be put right than about which Government did it.
§ Mr. Howell
I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman, who has made a very pertinent point. The logic of what he says is not only that the open cesspools and sewers should be dealt with where they run to the sea. Collapsing sewers that affect the gas and fresh water supplies give rise to a serious problem. Sewage gets into the clean water supply, and that can have incalculable consequences for all concerned. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed about the serious nature of the problem for convenience and for public health, and I am obliged to him for making that clear.
Another factor is also clear. It arises from the activities of the Secretary of State and his fly-by-night accountants. They have visited the regional water authorities, looking at their books on the basis of current cost accounting. By that means they have been able to rectify their earlier accountancy instructions to the authorities, which would have added enormously to water rates this year. Magically, the water rates have been brought back down to what the Government think is a more reasonable level. However, those activities have also involved an additional cut in the amount of money available for the replacement of sewers and for the capital works that are involved. That will add to the problem.
Our aim tonight is to highlight the extent to which it is not now possible for the Government to provide for the maintenance and replacement of our ageing sewerage system. The problem is most serious in the North-West, but London and other industrial towns, such as Birmingham, and regions such as the North-East and the North, are catching up. I do not make a party point here. Both sides of the House have a responsibility in this respect. The House as a whole must provide for the collapsing sewerage system. However, the hazard will be heightened by what the Government have been doing recently, and the problem must be tackled soon.
1046 In conducting research for the debate I discovered that eight years ago the country was spending twice as much on the replacement of decrepit sewers as it is spending this year, while the problem now is four or five times as great as it was then. These figures throw up in sharp relief the problem to which we seek to draw attention.
We welcome the fact that in another place the Government met the anxiety that we expressed in Committee and on Second Reading about the collapse of water mains and the effect upon domestic, commercial and industrial users. We hope that he will accept the logic of the position that where a householder or an industrial or commercial user is affected by a collapsed sewer the same arrangements should apply. That principle, which was admirably stated by the Minister and by Government spokesmen in the other place, has been absolutely right in respect of water supply, and in logic it must be applied equally to the drainage and sewerage system.
I thank the Minister for taking action. I hope that on a subsequent occasion he will extend the Government's clarity of thinking to cover the whole water cycle. The principle under which the water supply operates is that it is impossile to divide the supply of wholesome water from the treatment of the dirty water that follows. For example, water in the River Thames is used five or six times over during its passage along the Thames. It is used, cleaned, put back into the system, used again and cleaned again. That process takes place on four or five occasions.
That was the principle that a previous Government established as the basis for our water industry. The hydrological cycle leads to responsibility for the supply, use, disposal and drainage of water. Logic seems to lead inescapably to the Government's accepting responsibility for burst sewer mains as well as responsibility for burst water mains.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has met in full the argument that was advanced on Second Reading. The agricultural community is grateful for the way in which he has responded. I am grateful to Labour Members for the support that they have given in the course of getting the new clause on to the statute book. That is especially true of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham).
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that he hoped that the commencement date would be in April 1982. I hope that he is able to adhere to that date. As he will know, water authorities have on occasions been able to persuade Ministers not to bring legislation into effect. The most notable example is that some of the provisions in part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 are still not in operation. We are dealing with an insurable risk and there are no budgetary implications.
I hope that it is appreciated that the scope of the new clause extends beyond damage to property. My hon. Friend has rightly provided for its extension to personal injury. This will be of importance because a number of road accidents are caused by the presence on the roadway of water escaping from mains. In the past, those involved have not been able to recover damages except on proof of negligence. That position is changed by this provision, and I think that it will be greatly welcomed.
§ Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)
The difficulty facing those with constituencies such as mine in central Manchester is accepting that the cost of liability for 1047 damage will affect the funding, maintenance and revitalisation of the sewerage system. Those are factors that are causing all the problems. I agree with the compensation factor, but I am sure that we are all agreed that prevention is the remedy and that prevention is costly, especially in cities such as Manchester, which is one of the oldest industrial cities. Because of that, it has some of the oldest sewers. Many were built in the 1800s and 1850s. Some were built at the time of the passing of the Police Act 1792. Therefore, it does not need a mathematician to reach the conclusion that many have outlived their expected life of 125 years.
Some of those sewers are now more than 150 years old and are still in full use. That is a tribute to the workers who built them. However, life does not stand still. There have been many changes since those sewers were constructed in brick and in many shapes and forms. There have been changes since the Industrial Revolution. There have been great changes in heavy goods vehicles and transport usage of the roads above the sewers and great changes in the deterioration below the surface. In 1981 we are faced with a losing battle unless finance and resources can be found to reverse that situation.
The general public can comment and put pressure on their local councillors to have the public highways maintained, but how many people are aware of what lies beneath the surface? How many people are aware of the problems?
Lately, the number of sewer collapses in my constituency has reached frightening proportions. Massive holes are appearing with monotony. The effect of those collapses in the city is depressing. Major diversions and road works caused by sewer collapse have an added detrimental effect.
A losing battle is being fought when dereliction is taking place faster than renewal. Although the problem is underground and out of sight, it will not go away. Each day there is a new threat. One day the catastrophe of a double-decker bus disappearing down a gaping hole in the road, as envisaged by the city engineer, could become a reality.
In recent years there have been three serious major sewer collapses, all involving major traffic diversions. Fortunately, those collapses were located before a serious highway collapse occurred. The possibility of a collapse is a serious danger when one considers the risks to life and limb from one of the oldest sewerage networks under roads carrying heavy loads of industrial traffic. As a regional centre, Manchester takes a tremendous amount of heavy traffic. It is one of the oldest cities with a deteriorating sewerage system, and the combination of this and the heavy traffic could be a disaster.
The following factors pose a problem in my constituency: the danger, the cost to business, the delays in getting to work, and the inconvenience of congested city roads and diversions, which put additional loads on to the adjacent streets, which are often overloaded at peak hours, with resulting additional traffic congestion. Therefore, industrial and business traffic often has to be diverted over longer routes, and movement is slower because of the amount of traffic being absorbed. That is all the result of the deterioration of the sewerage system.
Moneys have been found to revitalise the inner city areas. The urgent request is that finance should be found for what is a priority. It is no use financing surface 1048 environmental improvements over a decaying underground network of sewerage and water supply systems. Many of the water distribution mains were constructed in the same era as the sewers. They also have reached the end of their useful life. If a water main bursts it will cause a sewer collapse, and vice versa.
The financing of the water mains comes from the same source and is virtually competing with the financing of the sewerage system maintenance. It is recognised that that is an immense problem. It is an offshoot from the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth in the North-West in general and in Manchester in particular. However, moneys will have to be found unless there is to be a continuation of the problem.
Patch-and-prop solutions over the years have only delayed the inevitable. The infrastructures are worn out and must be replaced rather than repaired. The disparity between the money spent on highways and the money spent on sewers should be rectified. It is no use walking, cycling, motoring or traveling by bus on well-maintained highways if at any moment they may collapse. There is a joke to the effect that I represent the largest and most expensive golf course in the world, with all the holes dotted throughout the city centre.
It will be expensive to renew the sewers. The city engineer and surveyor has advised the council that if it is necessary to renew completely all the obsolete sewers in the city centre we could be talking about at least £50 million, when the provision in the North-West's proposed five-year capital budget is only £1.6 million. I mention only the problem in Manchester, but other major cities may have similar problems.
Mr. Geoffrey Read, the city engineer and surveyor, told the highways committee:It is appreciated that the Highways Committee regard the allocation of funds for the renovation of sewers to be of paramount importance and will continue at every opportunity to press the Water Authority and the Government for an improvement in the situation. After all, it was the mills. the mines and the hardworking population of this area during the Industrial Revolution that ensured the nation's prosperity and it would seem not unreasonable that the nation as a whole should, in return, contribute towards the dereliction we have beneath us to-day.To summarise the present situation:—I implore the Government to find the money to revitalise the sewerage system. This part of the Bill highlights the vicious circle of compensation needing to be paid because not enough finance is given to remedy the cause of the problem. I repeat that prevention is better than compensation.
- (a) there is positive evidence as to the widespread structural dilapidation of the early part of our City centre sewerage networks—a potential danger to life and limb;
- (b) there is positive evidence of widespread inadequate hydraulic carrying capacity leading often to continual discharge of polluted liquid to our main water courses—a potential public health risk."
§ Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)
It is a good amendment, but it will cost the ratepayers more money as the cost of insurance will be heavy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) stated that the definition was wide enough to cover a large number of people, but what do the terms "communication pipe" and "main" mean in subsection (7)(a)? It states that theyhave the meanings assigned to them by section 1(1) of Schedule 3 to the Water Act 1945",1049 but I should like clarification.
In my constituency, the River Ouse runs for about 11 miles from close to my home out to the sea at King's Lynn, into the Wash. When we had the East Coast surge, a relief channel was dug alongside the river for nine miles, allowing the water coming down from Ely in time of flood to bypass the Denver sluice, which was built by the great Dutch engineer, Vermuyden, and was later reconstructed. In the opposite direction, some of this water can be channelled off to feed the reservoirs in Suffolk, which in turn feed back to the Essex reservoirs.
The sluice has been constructed in such a way that surplus may be directed into the sea or back inland to provide fresh water for householders in Essex.
Part of the system is open, in large canals, and part of it is in a 15-mile length of underground pipes. As the Anglia water authority knows, I am worried about the condition of Denver sluice. Three out of four of its sluices have already had to be closed because they were in bad order. If in times of flood so much water has to be put into the new canals that they overflow on to agricultural land or burst the pipes running into Suffolk and Essex, will farmers in my own and neighbouring constituencies be covered by the clause?
That is really my only question. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot answer it now, although he probably can, perhaps he will let me know later. It is a very urgent matter. For many years there were floods in Norfolk and the Isle of Ely in which tributaries of the Ouse, and, indeed, the main river itself, burst their banks. We have now constructed a different system and for 20 years or more we have succeeded in avoiding the great floods which used to occur every five or seven years, causing millions of pounds worth of damage.
There is now a build-up of bad maintenance in a major part of the system, due to lack of money. I do not blame the Anglia water authority, which is pressed in all directions. I am fearful that considerable damage may be suffered by farmers with land on either side of the new canals—which I call water mains—or the underground water main, which is, in fact, a piped supply taking fresh water to the householders of Essex.
§ Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)
I can only tell the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) that if he does not obtain a positive "Yes" from the Minister, many of us will have been fooled, both here and in Committee, as to the interpretation and intention of the new clause.
I re-emphasise on behalf of the Opposition two points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who opened the debate and by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland).
I must say first of all, and without reservation, that the Government are to be commended for the speed and fullness with which they seized the opportunity presented to them by the initiatives taken on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) introduced the possibility of taking this step, and in Committee, when he and other hon. Members on both sides carefully explained to the Minister and his colleagues the urgency of the need to take it. The Minister is to be congratulated for the manner and the speed with which the clause appeared and the consultations that took place.
1050 It is difficult to quantify the precise number of people who will benefit, because with the commitment to prove negligence one does not know how many people give up and do not try to obtain compensation. To that extent, therefore, we are in the dark. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Grantham said, this will be covered by insurance and the purpose of the clause in terms of water damage will undoubtedly aid a great many people.
Secondly, we cannot see why there has been so little speed in responding to what we regard as the twin objectives of the initiative put forward by the Opposition. The Minister has not said other than that he would consider the problem of sewage. He said that in Committee, and on Report he again reserved his position. We allowed him to do that because of the assurance in Committee that there would be a new clause. We recognised the urgency of effecting the borrowing powers provisions for the British Waterways Board. We do not wish to hold those up.
There is an interesting aspect in the Government's priorities. They should have acted more speedily in regard to consultations. The Minister in the other place was chided by an Opposition Member about the consultations taking place earlier than had been forecast. I acknowledge that the Minister has written to me today in helpful terms. We intend to respond to his invitation on an all-party, all-interest basis as quickly as possible.
I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham about the operative date. The hon. Gentleman wants a categoric assurance that it will be 1 April. Will the Minister consider the operative date being earlier than 1 April? There may be pressure in another place for it to be later than 1 April next year. That is why the hon. Member for Grantham went out of his way to raise the matter. I suggest that the effective date should be before 1 April because, as the hon. Member for Grantham pointed out, the clause will have, few if any, budgetary impacts on water authorities.
If the Minister says that he does not wish to interfere with the preparation of budgets by water authorities, I suggest that he had better think again. In February and April the Secretary of State did not hesitate to say to the water authorities "I know that you have prepared your budgets, but you must think again." He sent in his accounting Whiz kids. They reported that even though the budgets had been prepared it was possible to effect substantial savings. We know that the accounting Whiz kids transferred figures from one column to another. In effect, they forced on the water authorities reductions in their contingency funds and in the amounts they had decided to spend on capital projects.
The Minister should be more forthcoming on the question of sewers. We may have failed to comprehend the scale of the problem because we have not seen the national survey costings. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central knows his area well. The North-West is possibly the worst area in the country.
The Thames water authority is very little different. I have spoken to the authority within the past day or two. In view of what the Minister has insisted that it cuts from its capital expenditure over the next two years, I asked it what were the projects on which it would have made progress but would not now make progress. I was told that on certain projects, which the authority felt were essential for the protection of the health and the environment of my 1051 constituents and others in terms of sewerage and water, there would not now be progress, because of the actions of the Secretary of State.
On capital, money was due to be spent on the Mogden sewage treatment works, on metering and control equipment. That has now been delayed, not as a result of the budgetary measures of the Thames water authority but on the diktat of the Secretary of State. The Crossness sewage treatment works digestion plant conversion will not now take place. The Worcester Park sewage treatment works extension, the Berwick Avenue surface water sewer, the Northern stormwater outfall at Thamesdown, and the Moor Park and Westbury foul and surface water sewer have been deferred and delayed.
While telling the House that they are sympathetic to consideration being given to solving the sewerage problem, the Government are telling the Thames water authority, in a cavalier fashion—although the authority knows best and is willing to levy a fraction of a penny water rate to get ahead with the work—that it cannot do so. This is for the Government's political purposes and because they want to appear to be seen to cut costs.
In the Thames water authority area there are 31,000 miles of sewers. I have been delighted to learn that the authority has a programme of investigation, which it will take two years to complete, to ascertan the extent of the damage to its sewerage system. No matter what the cost, it seriously wants to find out. I am grateful that the authority is doing what I believe every other water authority wants to do, and that is to make sure that instead of using the Bill and this clause to enable a person to claim compensation it stops the damage by renewing the pipes and the systems.
I very much hope that when the Minister responds to this debate, having already won medals for what he has done in Committee and what he has authorised in another place in terms of liability and the need to claim negligence on the part of an undertaking in relation to water supplies, he will tell the House that he appreciates that there is an enormous problem to be considered in terms of sewerage and that he will be helpful to the deputation when it meets him.
With those words, we give a very warm welcome to the new clause that has come to us from another place.
§ Mr. Giles Shaw
With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the points raised in this debate.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and others, in particular the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland), raised the question of sewerage in connection with the indications given in the Committee that we would look at the principle of extension of the sewerage system. I should like to make two points on this. There must be in our minds a distinction between a clause which deals with liability and compensation and the question of capital renewal and replacement of an utterly obsolete sewerage system. These two things must be separated in dealing with the measure now before us.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Central quite rightly drew attention to the enormous need for capital works and capital replacement in an area which contains a substantial amount of ancient sewerage system and in which there was, therefore, increasing risk of collapse. In law, it is a 1052 question whether collapse is caused by the last double-decker bus to pass overhead, by the negligence of the North-West water authority or by the negligence of the highway authority, which might not have determined the stability of the foundations. A substantial chain of questions are raised that are not easy to answer in the simple terms of a clause that extends compensation.
I turn to the subject of costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) suggested that there were few, if any, budgetary considerations. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) also raised this point. There is a significant cost element in extending compensation under the new clause. We did our best to ask the industry for its estimate of the additional costs that it would incur through insurance cover. The estimates suggest that costs to the industry as a whole could be between £8 million and £10 million. This must be seen in the context of the overall amount of revenue that is attracted to the water industry. That amounts to about £1.54 billion. One might see a relationship between the provision of costs and 0.6 per cent. for charges. Nevertheless, it is not an insignificant element in relation to charges.
The Government recognise that in respect of water mains, where pressure is involved, the case for damage is more substantial because o:' both force and frequency. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins), I should point out that we can define a water main. The water main is the pipe that gives the general supply, under pressure, from which consumers draw their supplies. The communication pipe runs from the main to the boundary of the consumer's premises. That pipe comes within the authority of the water undertaking.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
Can the hon. Gentleman give the relative figures for collapsed mains and collapsed sewers? My information is that there is little difference between the number of bursts in clean water supplies and the number of bursts in the sewerage system. I fully accept the figures that the hon. Gentleman was obliged to give the House, which showed the enormity of the cost to the water industry. Does he accept that if the size of the cost is a factor in excluding sewers from this provision, the obligation on the householder or farmer must be overwhelming? Does he not realise that that cannot be accepted? If a statutory authority cannot accept such an obligation, we should not expect the domestic user to do so. That is neither logical nor legally correct.
§ Mr. Shaw
As regards the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, no one knows the cost of extending the provision to cover the whole sewerage system. That is one reason why I suggest that the problem should be carefully discussed. As regards the right hon. Gentleman's second point, he should recognise that a substantial part of the sewerage system is not in the hands of statutory water undertakings. Much of it involves private building land. A private developer has the right to tap into a sewer, generally speaking. It is not certain that a water authority would cover the vast majority of breakages.
I accept that the matter requires careful assessment That is why the offer made to the hon. Member for Edmonton is being eagerly taken up. I should emphasise that we can define "water main". Bursts occur frequently' and usually affect both domestic and agricultural premises. It will be very difficult to deal, within the same 1053 time scale of preparation and definition, with questions of what would happen when there were bursts within the sewerage system and where the liability should rest. The point raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central vividly illustrates the problems of definition.
Hon. Members have understandably criticised water authorities for their failure to deal quickly with all the problems of their systems, but the authorities inherited a most difficult problem. The majority have moved with commendable speed in trying to bring the sewerage and water treatment systems up to a more modem condition. I pay them full tribute for their rapid progress in the relatively few years in which they have been in operation.
This brings me to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West. I guess from his description that he was referring to a system that is not so much a pressurised conduit of pure water for domestic use as a combination of factors, including the transmission not of water under pressure but of general water from one area to another. I shall write to my hon. Friend in detail about the sluice and canal system. It may not be easy to bring it within the definition of the compensation clause that we are discussing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and the hon. Member for Edmonton asked about the commencement date. At present we intend the clause to come into force on 1 April 1982, but we must discuss the date with the authorities. They recognise that it is their duty to see that the provision is implemented as soon as possible after enactment. However, I have said that there are budgetary considerations.
§ Mr. Graham
Those who suffer hurt are to be given a remedy, but as long as this prospective change is held in suspense there will continue to be, for six months to a year, aggrieved people who are denied the benefit of the legislation. It will be on the statute book, but the effective date will not have been reached. The prospect of redress, of remedy, is now held out. Although some people may want that remedy to be delayed, for their own very good reasons, I hope that good will and the greater good of the greatest number will prevail.
§ Mr. Shaw
For damage due to bursts, the water authorities have traditionally offered, particularly to individuals, ex gratia compensatory payments that have not been ungenerous. I am sure that that protection will continue. We should be doing the authorities a disservice if we suggested that a serious gap was opening up between the passage of the Bill and implementation of the clause, although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.
I recognise that although we seek to solve one problem in the clause, other problems remain. Their complexity is such that it will not be easy to resolve them quickly. The cost of the compensation that we propose will ultimately have to be borne by consumers. We must tread with care before adding significant costs.
While water authorities are fully in control of the mains and the communication pipes leading therefrom, they are not in the same position as regards other water disposal systems. However, I look forward to meeting the hon. Member for Edmonton and his all-party, all-interest group.
It appears to be the wish of both sides of the House that we should agree with the Lords in the amendment and see the Bill through to Royal Assent.
§ Question put and agreed to.