HC Deb 04 February 1987 vol 109 cc982-3
2. Mrs. Golding

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will be meeting the Council for the Protection of Rural England to discuss the proposed privatisation of water authorities.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

Ministers are in regular contact with the CPRE over a wide range of issues, and we stand ready to meet the council to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Mrs. Golding

Is the Secretary of State aware that some of the strongest traditional supporters of the Conservative party are completely opposed to the privatisation of the water authorities? Will he meet the CPRE and other groups in the countryside so that they can tell him of their anxiety and give him good reasons why water should not be privatised?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Lady comes from a county where large numbers of people are extremely well served by a private water company, so I do not see why she is so up in arms about this. However, I am always prepared to meet anybody to discuss this important measure. I hope that people will discuss the measure when it is laid before the House, not this Session, and see the proposed details. because much of the opposition is based on misapprehension.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Given that my right hon. Friend wants to communicate with the CPRE, at present he may find difficulty in doing so by telephone. If so, can he have a word with the husband of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) to see whether the position can be improved?

Mr. Ridley

A little pillow talk in that respect would be welcomed by all those who want to communicate with many other people.

Mr. Allan Roberts

When the Minister meets the CPRE, will he discuss the fact that the water authorities are some of the biggest polluters of the rivers that they are responsible for cleaning, and that that is a consequence of the lack of public investment in our sewerage system? Will he point out that if private investors take over the water authorities they will not be interested in cleaning pollution? No one in his right mind would buy the Mersey, for example, to make money from an open sewer full of mercury and sewage.

Mr. Ridley

That is a bit strong, considering that we have replaced the cuts in investment which were made under the Labour Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported. We have now returned to a high level of investment in water. Indeed, it is perhaps at its highest level in the Merseyside area, which has a huge programme for cleaning the Mersey basin. We strongly support that and have made money available for it. The hon. Gentleman was a little ungenerous about realising what has happened since we got rid of the Labour Government.

Mr. Hill

Does my right hon. Friend agree that local government reorganisation in the early 1970s, which included the water boards, was a disaster and that many of the water authorities were private companies before then? Is it not pure justice that we should now privatise them again?

Mr. Ridley

I must be careful in responding to my hon. Friend, because I cannot remember which disaster fell before or after I resigned from the Government of the time. Consumers will be served better and it will be greatly in the national interest to remove the constrictions of Government from the water industry so that it can get on with the job of serving consumers.

Dr. Cunningham

In expressing our complete opposition to privatisation of the water industry, may I ask the Secretary of State to explain why he refuses to respond to the CPRE and to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on why the European Economic Community has advised his Department that it could not recognise privatised water undertakings as competent authorities under EEC legislation because they would be responsible for pollution control and the supply of water? Will the Secretary of State answer that question? Why are the Government hesitating?

Mr. Ridley

There are three mistakes in that question. The hon. Gentleman mispronounced his hon. Friend's constituency; the EEC is now called the European Community, not the European Economic Community; and it has not advised my Department as he suggests. The CPRE has obtained a legal opinion as to what a competent authority is. I suggest that that is premature, because until the hon. Gentleman sees the proposals drafted in the Bill it is impossible to interpret whether that legal opinion is right or wrong. Let us make the proposals before we submit them to counsel.