HC Deb 01 February 1985 vol 72 cc581-4

Order for Second Reading read.

2.12 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is short, its terms and conditions are summed up in three clauses, and it has considerable and widespread public support. Clause 1 provides that the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 should simply apply to the water authorities. Hon. Members heard comments about that Act earlier today. Clause 1(2) repeals part of the Water Act 1983, which made the right of the press to attend water authority meetings discretionary. Therein lies the history of the matter. From 1960 water authorities happily held their meetings in public and both the public and press could attend. There was nothing secret about them, and information was readily available. The provision of information lies at the heart of this and other Bills. I have never understood the need to be secretive about whether an authority wishes to put a sewer down Smith street in Browntown, for the sake of argument. I do not understand why such a decision must be cloaked in secrecy.

Until 1983, water authority meetings were open and there were no problems. However, schedule 5 of the Water Act 1983 provided that the reconstituted water authorities should have the discretion to exclude the press. The nine English authorities and the Welsh authority met. The Welsh authority did not worry about the press and the public attending its meetings and said, "We shall carry on as before." To its eternal credit, its latest decision has been to continue the policy of open meetings. There are no problems with regard to secrecy in the Welsh water authority. Journalists can turn up, find out what is going on, ask questions and receive answers.

However, the English authorities decided to meet behind closed doors. Almost every newspaper in the land has thundered against that decision, because the public have a right to know what happens at water authority meetings. We are told that water rates will increase by an average of 12 per cent. this year. The North-Western water authority has said that there will be a 40 per cent. increase during the next three years, and the Thames water authority has said that water rates will increase by 29 per cent. during the next three years. But the public do not know why.

The English water authorities argue that they provide adequate briefings, and that after each board meeting a member of the board, usually the chairman or his secretary, will chat to the press. The authorities seem to believe that that is adequate consultation, but journalists can ask questions only about what they have been told will happen. Journalists are not mind readers. They cannot know what has happened behind those closed doors, and if they hit upon the right questions, it will only be a matter of luck. The Welsh authority does not have that problem, and has no difficulty in communicating with the public.

I hope that we shall have time today to hear the Minister state the Government's attitude to the Bill. I have my suspicions as to what it will be, but I should tell the House who is in favour of the Bill. It is not only the press; we seem to have gathered a bandwagon of supporters——

Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

A water wagon.

Mr. Bermingham

It may prove to be a water wagon that drowns the opposition to the Bill. We have support not only from hon. Members on both sides of the House, but from the other place, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils. For once, councils at all levels are united, because they believe strongly in the Bill, as do trade unions such as the National Union of Public Employees, the National and Local Government Officers Association and other major unions. We are also supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Country Landowners Association — a Bill that is supported by both NUPE and the Country Landowners Association has about as wide a spectrum of support as one could achieve—the Institute of Journalists, the National Union of Journalists, the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations, the National Federation of Anglers and the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses. Every sector of society supports the Bill. The only body that has spoken against the Bill is, believe it or not, the Association of Water Authorities. I wonder why?

To hoist the Home Secretary on his own petard, I remind the House that recently, in the Select Committee on Home Affairs, in answer to a question from me, the right hon. and learned Gentleman agreed that a lack of knowledge gave rise to speculation, often ill-informed speculation, that in a democratic society things should be open and above board and that it should be one's right to know. On that occasion the Home Secretary was speaking on the more controversial subject of the special branch.

Today we are talking about water authorities, which are taxation-raising bodies. They can raise taxes from every householder with a water supply, so that their activities apply to 99.9 per cent. of the population. Yet for some unknown reason there is a desire for those bodies to meet behind closed doors. Why? What has happened to the water industry since 1983? We are told that it has changed its format and shape and that it is more like a nationalised industry which has undergone a reduction in the size of boards, the members of which have a more managerial type function. That is all a load of baloney.

The water industry is a national asset which is divided into nine areas, and those areas are arbitrary in their format and layout. Before 1983, local authorities had an input into those boards by way of the members they appointed or sent as representatives to their meetings. By that means we had a degree of accountability and knowledge.

At the heart of this issue lies a simple principle. If an organisation has the right to raise taxation—call it rates or whatever—it must be accountable. The only way it can be accountable is by being open, honest and above board in its dealings with the public. That means letting the press and public know what is being done. If decisions are justified publicly, there can be no ill-informed speculation and people are saved unnecessary worry. Against that background, I commend the Bill to the House.

2.22 pm
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) on his success in the ballot and on the way in which he moved the Second Reading of his Bill.

The question of the admission of the press to meetings of the boards or water authorities was discussed fully on the Floor of the House and upstairs in Committee during the passage of the Water Act 1983. It is all very well for the hon. Member for St. Helens, South to call in aid the Home Secretary; my right hon. and learned Friend supported the provisions of that Act.

These issues were debated thoroughly at the time, and the hon. Member for St. Helens, South rightly acknowledged that, since the passing of the 1983 Act, the boards of water authorities had become much more streamlined. Because they now act as executive boards, the necessity that some hon. Members thought used to exist for admitting the press and public to their meetings is no longer justified.

The new streamlined water authorities contain members, all of whom are appointed by Ministers, who in turn are accountable to this House for the appointments they make. Every member of a water authority is appointed by my right hon. Friend. In addition the authorities are subject to ministerial direction and financial controls, a matter to which I hope to return on Thursday. We have created boards that are executive in style, like those of other nationalised industries and private sector companies. The hon. Gentleman referred to the ability of water authorities—he did not mention it but the same is true of water companies — to levy charges that are payable in law by their customers. The same is true of those who impose telephone charges and charges for gas and electricity.

We recognise that the press and the public have a right to know about the activities of water authorities and the decisions that they take. That is why we have provided safeguards. The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the code of practice which has the approval of the chairmen of water authorities. It sets out in para 1.2 the information that must be provided to the press and says: A list identifying items for discussion at the press conference will be circulated in advance. Section 7 of the Water Act 1983 requires each water authority to draw up proposals for representing consumers' interests in their areas. This was a new departure for the water industry but it has been a success. A further safeguard was provided in the code of practice.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gow

I have only five minutes. I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman in Thursday's debate.

The water authorities have found that their ability to meet in private——

Mr. Rooker


Mr. Gow

I promise to give way to the hon. Gentleman on Thursday.

Mr. Rooker

But that is a quite different debate.

Mr. Gow

I shall not give way now.

The chairmen have told me that their boards are now able to hold much more searching discussion of issues. They have found that their freedom to discuss matters in an untrammelled way without being inhibited by the presence of the press or the public has helped them to get to grips with difficult issues without being tempted to play to the gallery. Some water authorities have from time to time reconsidered their decision whether to meet privately. They have concluded that the advantages to business efficiency of meeting in private, and hence the gain that accrues to their customers, outweighs any disadvantages that some press commentators read into their actions.

Mr. Rooker

Will the Minister give way on this point?

Mr. Gow

I have just told the hon. Gentleman that I shall not.

The chairmen believe that those advantages would be diminished if they allowed the press into their proceedings. The water authorities' chairmen do not hold those views because they wish to hide behind a veil of secrecy. On the contrary, they have assured me that they wish to be as open as is consistent with the proper running of their businesses. They have told me that they have been pleased to find that the journalists who attend their press conferences are now better informed on water matters then when they were simply able to attend board meetings.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

If the water authorities think that journalists are much better informed, do the journalists agree?

Mr. Gow

More journalists turn up to press conferences held by chairmen after the meetings of boards than used to turn up to the meetings of the much larger boards.

During the past few months we have done our utmost to ensure that there is much more open debate about environmental pollution issues as well, through the implementation of part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. We have provided for public involvement in the granting of discharge consents. From yesterday, all new discharges having an appreciable effect on the receiving waters have to be advertised. There are now opportunities for public representations and there is power for the Secretary of State to call in applications.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gow


Last autumn, we undertook public consultation with a view to requiring water authorities to maintain, with effect from 31 July this year, public registers of effluent discharge and consent conditions attached to them. We intend to proceed with the proposals and I expect to lay the necessary regulations before the House shortly.

The material on public registers will be comprehensive and will be available immediately. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, when considering confidentiality in its recent report——

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I beg to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I am not prepared to accept that motion.

Mr. Gow

The opening of authority meetings to the public is an irrelevance——

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned. Debate to be resumed upon Friday 22 February.