HC Deb 26 July 1984 vol 64 cc1243-50 3.50 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Nicholas Edwards)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the water situation in Wales.

Since February of this year rainfall in the Principality has been abnormally low, and over the whole of the Welsh water authority area has only been 44 per cent. of the longterm average. The authority has been monitoring the water supply carefully since Easter and has taken measures to conserve stocks of water held in reservoirs by application for drought orders to reduce compensation water discharges from reservoirs and to increase abstraction from rivers. The authority also sought to reduce consumption by banning the use of hosepipes and garden sprinklers. In spite of those measures, reservoir levels have continued to fall and further action will be necessary to conserve the remaining stocks of water until there is sufficient rainfall to replenish them. Nobody can be certain when this will be, but meteorological records point to substantial rain by the third week of October and the WWA has formulated its emergency plans accordingly.

The areas most seriously affected are south-east Wales, Preseli, with a population of about 40,000 people, and the Lleyn peninsula where the influx of summer tourists more than doubles the population to about 66,000. However, the shortage of water in south-east Wales gives the greatest cause for concern because some 1 million people are involved. The WWA has therefore set up a drought liaison committee for south-east Wales with representatives from the local authorities, the health authorities, my Department, the CBI, the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales and other bodies. The committee met last Monday when the WWA presented the facts about the supply and outlined its plans for meeting the shortage.

In the first instance, there will be a ban on the non-essential users of water such as automatic car washing plant and a drought order has been signed to put that into effect. If the dry weather continues, the WWA will then need to ensure a further reduction in consumption to about 50 per cent. of normal from 1 September. It intends to do this by shutting off supplies to domestic consumers for up to 17 hours per day; industrialists and agriculturalists will be relied upon to make their own plans for reducing consumption by a similar amount. The organisations represented on the drought liaison committee now have a month to consider the implications of those measures and to make their own plans accordingly. Further meetings of the committee will take place as necessary to resolve any outstanding problems before the WWA begins to shut off supplies.

Problems of varying severity exist in other parts of the WWA area and appropriate measures are being taken to limit consumption and to make the best use of the available stocks of water. The powers available under the Drought Act 1976 are being, and will continue to be, used to the full and there is close contact between the WWA and my Department so that I am kept regularly informed of the situation.

Finally, I pay tribute to the great efforts being made by WWA personnel to overcome the problems caused by the exceptionally dry weather of recent months.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

The right hon. Gentleman has made a serious statement. He used the word, "emergency". Why did he not come to the House earlier? Is it true that in one month's time half of the population of Wales—about 1,400,000—face daily shutoffs of water for up to 17 hours? Without substantial rainfall, our reservoirs will almost certainly fail to service our vital needs in two months' time. Why did not the Secretary of State for Wales rapidly complete the water transfer scheme for the Wye and Usk rivers, which would have enabled south Wales to cope effectively with the drought? Did not the Labour Government bequeath a scheme that could have been completed by 1983 instead of by May 1985? Have not Ministers recklessly gambled on there being no such drought again? Have they not failed to recognise the importance of the transfer scheme?

The chief executive of the Welsh water authority said: It is certainly true that were phase one of the River Wye-River Usk transfer scheme in operation now, the drought could probably have been averted… We would always have welcomed an injection of funds from central Government." Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the comment made by the Western Mail in its first leader yesterday? It said that: the Welsh Office is falling down in its duty to the people of Wales. Are not the Government's cash limits disastrously inadequate to develop the water grid that Wales needs?

What is the estimate of potential job losses and lay-offs and the impact of cut-offs upon the manufacturing and service industries in Wales? The Minister should be aware that some Welsh valleys suffer male unemployment rates of more than 20 per cent. Long-term unemployment in the valleys rises to about 40 per cent. How precisely will the Minister assist the inceasingly vulnerable dairy farming and tourist industries in Preseli and Lleyn, for example? Does he promise that there will be no premature cut-offs in Blaenau Gwent, upper Cynon Valley and Rhondda areas? Our valley communities shelter some of Britain's poorest people and a high number of elderly citizens. They need special consideration. So do those factories located amid housing estates that face water cut-offs. The right hon. Gentleman has never had a mandate to lead the people of Wales. Is he aware that we have no confidence in him, that his stewardship has been poor and that he has let down the people of Wales?

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman asked about a statement in the House. I have reported to Members representing Welsh constituencies in the Grand Committee and at Welsh Questions. I have come forward to make a statement today. During the previous drought in 1976, the then Secretary of State for Wales never made a statement on the subject in the House. Indeed, the reaction of the Labour Government in 1976 was to introduce expenditure cuts of £60 million in 1977–78 and a further £60 million the following year, after a 10 per cent. moratorium in 1976. The then National Water Council said that as a result Some… measures to provide against a recurrence of severe drought mentioned in the recent 'Water Supply Prospects in 1977' will now have to be postponed. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that during that drought, which was not as severe as the present one, cut-offs began on 19 July and were extended at the beginning of August. Because of the substantial measures taken since 1976, we have been able to avoid the possibility of cut-offs until the beginning of September. A substantial number of schemes were completed during that period.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Wye transfer scheme. That scheme was not introduced to deal with the drought emergency in 1976. It was part of a longer plan, based on the judgment of water needs in Wales over the last part of the century. It was brought forward and looked at more urgently in the light of the 1976 experience. Very soon after coming into Government I gave approval for that scheme. It was then considered by the water authority, in the light of current assessments of water need, and plans were proceeded with on that basis. The intention was to complete the supply of 15 million gallons a day for the Wye transfer by next year. Those decisions were taken in 1981.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about cash limits. There have been no cash limits on the water authority. The water authority is provided with an EFL and in every single year since this Government came to office the Welsh water authority has substantially underspent its EFL.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Western Mail article. That article was extraordinarily ill-informed in that it suggested that supplies of water going to the Severn-Trent area were having some effect on south-east Wales. There is no truth whatsoever in that suggestion. The limitation is on the amount of water that we can pump out of the lower reaches of the Wye and the amount of water in the reservoirs of south-east Wales.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the effect on jobs. The 1976 industry showed itself extremely adaptable and I am sure it will meet the needs at the present time. The hon. Gentleman referred to problems, particularly those of the Heads of the Valleys, where there are major water shortages in the reservoirs on the Brecon Beacons that supply the Heads of the Valleys, but it is as a result of major schemes carried out since 1976 that we are able to transfer large quantities of water into south-east Wales, both from the Wye and the west, and to transfer water around a local grid and, indeed, up the lower reaches of the valleys. It is because of those measures that it has been possible to take the decision not to impose restrictions in the Heads of the Valleys before restrictions are introduced elsewhere in south-east Wales.

Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we could have had a lot more investment in our water industry if everyone had been prepared to pay much higher water charges, that there has been no restriction on investment by the water authority, that his statement this afternoon is greatly appreciated by those of us who remember the lack of any statement in the past from the Labour Government and that Labour Members are showing a fine turn of hypocrisy this afternoon?

Mr. Edwards

I can confirm that one of the factors that the water authority has to take into account in planning its long-term capital programme is the effect on charges. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that there has been no constraint as a result of borrowing limits set by the Government. What has constrained the authority is the effect on charges that a massively increased capital programme would have had. It has had to balance its priorities, both in terms of the needs of the capital programme and the effect on charges, and take an overall judgment.

I can tell my hon. Friend that far from having cut the capital programme in any way, though we announced in advance what capital expenditure was likely to be, the water authority has exceeded those planned amounts in each of the last two financial years and no action has been taken against it. Indeed, it has received our congratulations on it efforts to contain expenditure.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Tourism, manufacturing and agriculture industries in Wales all need a comprehensive and reliable water system which will enable them to exploit the great natural resources of Wales. Will the Secretary of State come out of the corner, into which he regularly retreats, of political slugging and tell us when Wales will have the investment that will give it that comprehensive and reliable water system?

Mr. Edwards

Perhaps I can tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that over the past few years the following schemes have been completed—the Llyn Brianne-river Tywi scheme, which is enabling us to take 4 million gallons of water per day into south-east Wales at the moment, the Taf Fawr-Taf Fechan link, which is proving extremely important, the Taf Fechan-eastern valleys link; the Llandegfedd aqueduct-Taf Fawr link and the Wye transfer scheme which is enabling us to transfer this week some 10 million gallons of water per day. Therefore, substantial progress is being made to improve the system.

If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to urge water users in Wales to pay higher charges we could, of course, speed up that scheme even more.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is it not pretty sickening to hear both Opposition parties, who ruthlessly exploit the natural reluctance of the people in Wales to pay higher water charges, now rounding on my right hon. Friend and complaining that more money was not spent? It is particularly inappropriate for them to complain that the statement comes so late, as my right hon. Friend has taken the first possible opportunity to make a statement and no such statement was ever made by the Labour Government.

Mr. Edwards

I note that this is the second statement that I have made in 10 days on a subject on which my predecessor never made a statement. The other matter was commented on in an early-day motion. The Government have spent some £75 million on improvements to the water supply system in the area and the water authority is undertaking a massive capital programme. The constraint that it has to bear in mind is the effect on charges and the need to balance its overall priorities.

Mr. Leo Abse (Torfaen)

Does not the Secretary of State appreciate that South-east Wales, where this grim visitation will take place in September, will not regard what is taking place as an act of God, but will rightly regard it as yet another piece of folly and irresponsibility on the part of the Secretary of State for Wales? Why does he not admit that his failure to monitor the capital expenditure of the Welsh water authority and the failure to ensure that the Usk-Wye scheme was implemented has led to this result? By trying to shift responsibility on to the Welsh water authority and by saying that it has underspent, he is only revealing still further his irresponsibility in not having identified the problem and put it squarely to the Welsh authority which could have saved south-east Wales from this disaster. It is high time that the Secretary of State for Wales made an apology to the people of Wales for what is happening. He should be contrite and not follow the example of his mistress, in always alleging that responsibility lies somewhere other than with himself.

Mr. Edwards

I shall not follow the characteristically charlatan pretence of the hon. Member that Ministers can somehow miraculously solve the worst drought since records began and the problems that that drought is bound to produce. I point out to him that in 1976, under the Labour Government, the first shut-off in his constituency occurred for 13 hours a day on 19 July. We are avoiding such cut-offs until the beginning of September. We all remember the stand pipes that were placed in Welsh valleys under his Government, which undertook a slashing reduction of water authority investment because they had made such a total mess of running the economy.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members will have heard what I said earlier about the business which follows—important Back Bench business. I shall allow questions to continue until 4.20 pm, which will allow a full half hour on this statement. However, I ask hon. Members to put their questions briefly.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

Nobody in Wales will be very impressed with the Secretary of State and what he had to say. Welsh communities face water rationing and heavy fines, and industrial users find themselves facing a serious future. The Secretary of State says that he is not God, but he is Old Nick here. Will the Secretary of State say on how many occasions drought orders have been applied for and restrictions applied to water supplies to domestic consumers since 1979? Despite what he has been saying he should accept that it is a fact that he has placed restrictions on the Welsh water authority which have prevented implementation of the plans drawn up in 1976 to deal with droughts, particularly in south-east Wales. Does he want to go down as the man who caused Welsh people to go thirsty and, perhaps unwashed?

Mr. Edwards

The scheme drawn up during the 1970s was not a drought scheme, and it was launched by this Government, not by their predecessors. There is absolutely no truth in the idea that it is constraints by this Government that have delayed the scheme. As I pointed out, the EFLs set have been under-utilised in every single year. The limit in 1982–83 set by the Government was £25.25 million, and the Welsh water authority spent £22.6 million. In 1983–84, we set a limit of £23 million, and the Welsh water authority spent £18.6 million.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Does the Secretary of State accept what his Under-Secretary told the Welsh Grand Committee, that the Wye-Usk transfer could have been completed in May 1983? If he does, can he tell the House why he has not insisted that it should be completed?

Mr. Edwards

It was never intended or planned by anyone that the scheme should be totally completed by that date. Indeed, it has never been intended that the full transfer and full use of 30 million gallons should be available before the early 1990s. The decision was taken by the Welsh water authority in 1981 on the basis of its assessment of water requirements in south-east Wales in the latter part of the century, and the scheme was revised because it has now been assessed that water usage has declined. As I pointed out, although the scheme is obviously important during drought, that was never its prime purpose.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Is the Secretary of State seriously saying, in spite of all that was said at the time of the Select Committee report, that he did not interfere in the financial regime of the Welsh water authority—in respect of charges, for example'? What precisely did he mean when he said that industrial and agricultural users will be relied upon to reduce their consumption by a similar amount? What does "be relied upon" mean? Will there be monitoring, or what? How will that be enforced?

Mr. Edwards

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that I was alone in asking the Welsh water authority to hold down its charges, that would be very hypocritical. It has been the universal demand of every Opposition Member and most people in Wales. It is one of the factors that the water authority rightly has to take into account. It is absurd hypocrisy for people to pretend otherwise. I utterly reject it.

We are having meetings with industry and asking it to restrict its usage to 50 per cent., and I am confident that it will make every effort to do so. If people can save water substantially in the coming weeks and there is moderate rainfall in August, we shall be able to postpone the introduction of the scheme, I hope. But that depends on significant rainfall during the period and a substantial saving in the use of water. There is no other soluion to the problem.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the work of the personnel of the Welsh water authority who are carrying out their duties at this difficult time. In my constituency lives the new technical services director of that authority, who takes up his duties next week. I see from the front page of last night's Evening Post that there was a horrible crash into Mr. Earp's house. His wife fortunately managed to escape with no injury whatever. None the less, she had been—I quote— watering flowers moments earlier. May I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that when personnel of the Welsh water authority, their husbands or wives water their flowers, they use bath water and not water from the tap?

Mr. Edwards

I am not aware of exactly what restrictions apply in the area. South-west Wales does not have the same water problem that south-east Wales has. But I shall certainly take the opportunity, as the hon. Gentleman has asked, to say that everyone should be encouraged to use washing up water and so on to water their flowers, and should not use hose pipes, thereby wasting water.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Will the Secretary of State agree that his statement this afternoon has been totally unacceptable? The people of Wales want water not words. The Secretary of State seeks to blame all our problems on inadequate rainfall. He makes no mention at all of inadequate financing of the Welsh water authority, of inadequate planning, of inadequate management or of inadequate leadership from the Welsh Office. In the light of the prevailing circumstances in Wales, will the Secretary of State reconsider first, his position on the need for a national grid and, secondly, his position on introducing rebates for industrial, commercial and domestic consumers?

Mr. Edwards

I really think that for the hon. Gentleman to make some of his remarks against the background of the worst drought since records began is to credit Ministers and, indeed, planners at the water authority with an ability to deal with every situation. Frankly, it is misleading to suggest that such an ability exists. As for a national grid, I agree with statements made by Labour Ministers at the time that to introduce a major national grid would be a massive and costly exercise that would take a very long time. What we are doing, and making considerable progress towards, is establishing a local grid in the south Wales area. It is because we have made substantial progress in this direction that we are making a much better success of handling this more severe drought than was made in 1976 by the Labour Government, who had water rationing in mid-July.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Will the Secretary of State consider his answers to questions and realise that it is getting a little boring for the Opposition to hear him telling us about—and misrepresenting in the process—the actions of the previous Labour Administration? Will the Secretary of State concentrate his mind on the inadequacies of the present Administration? Will he admit that the drought in 1976 was of the order of seriousness of the drought of 1948 and that under the previous Labour Administration there was action to put together a plan for a water transfer scheme, which his Administration have delayed? Can he guarantee that he will now treat that scheme as a priority and ensure that the water transfer scheme, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), will be a top priority for his Department? If so, will the Secretary of State also undertake to have careful planning in his Department so that we do not need miracles?

Mr. Edwards

As the hon. Gentleman clearly has not been listening for the past half hour I shall tell him again that the records show that the present drought is by far the worst since records began. It is significantly worse than that in 1976. I shall also tell him that the Government have in no way restrained either the new Wye transfer scheme or the other schemes. Clearly, in the light of present events, the water authority will have to reconsider its priorities and take decisions accordingly.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Welsh wailing and wind that we have heard from the Opposition today carries little weight in my part of Herefordshire, which is served by the Welsh water authority? We already pay far more for our water than those living in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the robust reorganisation that he undertook in his early days as Secretary of State has left the Welsh water authority far better equipped and financially better organised and prepared to deal with such emergencies in the future?

Mr. Edwards

It is undoubtedly true that not only did the Welsh water authority inherit a poor system in many parts of Wales but that the previous organisation was not well equipped to sort out those problems. We have made major improvements to the organisation and that is why the water authority is making such successful attempts to deal with an unprecedentedly difficult situation.