HC Deb 07 March 1984 vol 55 cc843-5
9. Mr. Ray Powell

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many regional water authorities now make their meetings open both to the public and the press.

Mr. Gow

None of the regional water authorities opens its board meetings to the public or the press. The Welsh water authority has decided to do so for a trial period of 12 months. Several authorities open their land drainage committees to the press.

Mr. Powell

Is the Minister aware that because of the loss of proper representation of consumer councils on regional water authorities the press and the public should be openly invited to attend and take note of what is said? Is the Minister aware of what the Prime Minister said in her maiden speech? Having been her Parliamentary Private Secretary for some time, he should know. On 5 February 1960, in moving the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill, she said: The public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing." — [Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1350.] Surely the Minister should remind his right hon. Friend of that and ensure that the Water Act 1983 is so amended as to allow the public and the press admission to those meetings.

Mr. Gow

With regard to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is common ground between us that my right hon. Friend introduced her Bill before the passing of the Water Act 1983, and different considerations now apply. With regard to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he should not be unhappy because the Welsh water authority is the only one that admits the press.

Mr. Holt

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the press were permitted to go to Thames water authority meetings, as it was when I was a member of the authority, it would be astounded to learn that this year four firms and two banks between them will be able to save over £300,000 by virtue of metering and that everyone who pays water rates in the region is having to pay 3 per cent. extra in water rates as a result of industry and commerce being able to meter their water inflow?

Mr. Gow

The introduction of metered water is desirable and is an option available to most domestic customers. In the Thames water authority, as in others, there will be a consumers consultative council. The Act reached the statute book only 10 months ago and the new consultative arrangements should work well.

Mr. Fatchett

Will the Minister advise his hon. Friends to look at the experience of the water authorities before they support the abolition of the metropolitan county councils? Surely the experience arising from those quangos will be reproduced in the many quangos that will come to rule the metropolitan county council areas—quangos that will be obsessed with secrecy—and there will be a diminution of democracy. Should not all those Conservative Members who are concerned about democracy examine the experience of the water authorities, which should lead them to vote in favour of maintaining the metropolitan county councils?

Mr. Gow

My right hon. Friends and I are always happy to learn from experience.

Mr. Waller

Is it not significant that hardly any of those involved in the synthetic campaign about the water authorities attended the meetings when they were open to the public? Is it not a fact that when the meetings were open to the public the attempt to combine accountability and business-like methods was a failure, as many of our constituents would agree? Are not the objectives far more likely to be reached under the arrangements provided for under the Water Act 1983?

Mr. Gow

I agree with my hon. Friend. We believe that the change in the arrangements that we have made will lead to more efficient water authorities and that the new consultative councils will give an opportunity for the proper participation of consumers in that organisation.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister look again at this matter, particularly in the light of the report on environmental pollution, which says that apart from the technical points, the most important considerations are information for the public and lack of secrecy, and persuade his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that in this year, above all, freedom of information is desirable and that a U-turn in policy generally looks like an unacceptable U-bend as regards the water authorities?

Mr. Gow

I do not propose to heed that advice from the official spokesman of the Liberal party.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Is the Minister aware that there is one announcement to the press which the consumers of Northumbrian water authority wish had never been made—the increase in the rate this year of 18 per cent? Is the Minister aware that this rise results largely from the borrowings of the water authority which were made to satisfy the needs of the industry in the area? Why has he not been prepared to respond to the requests of the water authority to restructure its debts so that the grossly unfair burden on the domestic ratepayer is reduced?

Mr. Gow

We considered carefully the special position of this water authority. We had to conclude, reluctantly, that we were not able to make special arrangements in this case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the most careful consideration was given to the special plight of this authority.

Mr. Ryman

That answer simply will not do. The truth of the matter is, as the Minister well knows, that the Northumbrian water authority has increased domestic water charges for residents in Northumbria by an enormous amount, and the users of water in Northumberland have no remedy against excessive charges. Why on earth do the Government not do something about this other than altering the law for the appointment of members to the Northumbrian water authority?

Mr. Gow

I visited the Northumbrian water authority in January this year. Even after the increases for next year, to which the hon. Members for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) and Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) have referred, the charges made by the Northumbrian water authority will still be in about the middle range of charges made by other water authorities.