HC Deb 04 May 1983 vol 42 cc366-7

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 11 to 13 and insert— (5) In the case of the regional water authorities, the members appointed by the Secretary of State shall

1.39 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker Mr. Paul Dean

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 2.

Mr. Shaw

The purpose of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 is to provide that the Secretary of State for Wales should appoint at least two land drainage and fishery members to the Welsh water authority. This is desirable as there are statutory regional land drainage and regional fishery advisory committees and it is important that there should be members with relevant experience to chair them.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

Even at this unearthly hour I hope that the Minister will clarify the intention of the amendment. It refers to two members with experience of land drainage or fisheries. Does that mean that there should be two of each, or two of either? The wording could result in there being two land drainage people and no fisheries people, or vice versa.

Mr. Giles Shaw

The optimum number would be two. One would be drawn from each faculty. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Secretary of State for Wales also has responsibility for agriculture in Wales and therefore has the same powers as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in England.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 3 in page 2, line 29, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Shaw

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 18 and 23.

Mr. Shaw

I am conscious that the amendment refers to the discussions that we had in Committee about the local ombudsman. The House will recall that on Report on 18 January we debated the jurisdiction of the local ombudsman over water authorities I moved an amendment which partially restored the remit of the ombudsman over water authorities in respect of that part of their service under which the local authority arrangements for sewerage were undertaken. On that occasion I was criticised by the late right hon. Member for Rhondda, Mr. Alec Jones, for not going far enough. I should like at this stage to pay tribute to the memory of Alec Jones and to the contribution that he made to our Committee proceedings. He was always a vigorous and cogent performer in Committee, with unfailing courtesy and good humour. We certainly miss him tonight.

When the Bill reached the other place, the anxieties that had been expressed here were repeated, and we therefore thought it right to re-examine the issue. In our view, the widespread importance that is attached to the power of the local ombudsman to investigate the water authorities and the useful results that his investigations have achieved make it difficult to maintain that this right should be withdrawn. I have in mind also that the overall purpose of the Bill is to benefit the water authorities' consumers in various ways. I therefore do not wish to part from that objective.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

May I say on behalf of the Opposition how much we appreciate the Minister's kind comments about our former colleague, the late right hon. Member for Rhondda, Mr. Alec Jones. It is fitting that the case that he made has been accepted by the Government, for which I express my appreciation.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I endorse what has been said about the former right hon. Member for Rhondda, Mr. Alec Jones, and I share the feelings that have been expressed on both sides of the House.

I was taught in Sunday school to be thankful for small mercies. This is a small but important mercy in relation to the Bill as a whole. I am grateful to their Lordships for being the bestowers of this mercy and for the work they did on the Bill. Would that they had succeeded in one or two other directions as well.

It is important that the local ombudsman should maintain his ability to investigate maladministration in the water authorities, because under the Bill the Government have created bodies that carry out powers previously exercised in many cases by democratic local government, by bodies consisting entirely of people appointed by Ministers and by bodies from the meetings of which the Government have seen entirely fit to exclude the press. They have created a monstrously undemocratic body. It is the subject of grossly inadequate accountability and spends vast amounts of public money. All that the poor public have out of this is the right for the local ombudsman to investigate when maladministration arises.

That is a small benefit to set against so appalling a system for organising the water industry, but we are particularly grateful to the Lords for ensuring that it is there. We hope that the power will be exercised to the full where it is necessary to do so to ensure the protection of the individual against bodies which, in our view, are subject to entirely inadequate public accountability.

Mr. Wigley

I, too, should like to thank the Minister for his kind words about the late right hon. Member for Rhondda, Mr. Alec Jones. It is sad that he is not with us tonight. It leaves me as the only Member representing a Welsh constituency in the debate. We miss Alec Jones from debates on water matters as well as on other matters.

It is likely that the ombudsman will be loaded with a fair amount of work arising from complaints about water matters. Because water authorities are not to be answerable, and because the press are not to be allowed in, it may be that more questions will go through to the ombudsman than would have gone otherwise.

I welcome the concession that has been made tonight. I only wish that there were other concessions, which might have left the ombudsman with a smaller work load.

Question put and agreed to.

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