HC Deb 21 July 1989 vol 157 cc665-70
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the operational problems in the water industry which have left 500,000 homes in south and south-east London without water; and what steps his Department is taking to avert the impending crisis.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

This is an operational matter for Thames Water. We have been in touch with Thames Water which is doing all it can to maintain and restore water supplies and to improve the provision of emergency supplies to those who have been cut off. Priority is being given to hospitals and to other special cases.

Mr. Hughes

Is the Minister aware that the direct cause of the problem appears to be the infestation of the Hampton plant in Middlesex, which affects seven London boroughs, Dartford and Sevenoaks—a quarter of the capital's water supply? The infestation of larvae has been common in previous years and could have been dealt with by adequate research and development and investment, but this year Thames Water has reduced research and development by 10 per cent., and it reduced infrastructure investment in the previous full financial year by 25 per cent. Is she aware that people are concerned that after privatisation the consequence of cutting costs and cutting investment will put at risk the water supply in times of crisis? Can she explain why, on every occasion when the temperature goes up, the ability to supply water goes down?

Why is it that cumulatively, over the years, we have left our water supply industry in such a bad state that it cannot deliver the goods? Will the hon. Lady tell the House what on earth is the argument for her and her right hon. and hon. Friends planning to sell off the water industry so that in future, when such problems arise, affecting huge numbers of people, nobody will be accountable in the House to answer questions at times of extreme urgency in the capital city?

Mrs. Bottomley

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have had a period of very hot weather and very high demand. He referred to the difficulties at the Hampton treatment works where remedial maintenance work is taking place. The larvae concerned are quite unacceptable, although they are not in themselves a health hazard.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the vital importance of investing in the water industry. In the particular circumstances in south-east London, I shall not labour the point that under the last Labour Government investment was cut by 30 per cent., and under this Government investment has increased by 50 per cent. The key point is that under privatisation all the water companies will have to draw up long-term investment plans. They will be free to raise capital and borrow appropriately to ensure that, properly and rightly, they can meet customers' demands.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

Is it not astonishing that Thames Water did not launch a public relations campaign two or three days ago, when it was clear that the crisis was looming, to tell the inhabitants of south-east London that it was critically important to save every bit of water that they could? Is it not astonishing that Thames Water did not inform my local council about the problem until almost midday yesterday, when it must have known 48 hours before that the crisis was looming?

Mrs. Bottomley

It is important for consumers to act with restraint. A hosepipe ban will be imposed from midnight tonight. We hope that people will take all possible action in the meantime. Thames Water has set up an emergency response centre on 833 6564. Twenty people are manning the service, and consumers who are worried would be well advised to ring the service. Thames Water is taking a great deal of action and is bringing in static tanks, bowsers and stand pipies. Of course, the situation is serious for those concerned and Thames Water is considering what further steps to take.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

We know that the Secretary of State is very doctrinal, but will the Under-Secretary remind him that the diet of worms was a meeting, not a drink? Will she please divert money intended to be spent by Thames Water on floating Thames shares on the watery stock exchange at very great cost to providing a better supply of water in London? Will she confirm that after privatisation there will be no accountability to Members of Parliament if such problems recur?

Mrs. Bottomley

The key point is that, under the privatised arrangements, water companies will be required to have long-term investment plans. Thames Water is already investing heavily in the London ring main. That is well advanced and will lead to a long-term improvement in such difficulties.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of London want water, not political posturing from the Opposition? Does she further agree that something is lacking in the publicity and information being given out by Thames Water? For some time there has been a great deal of confusion in London about where people should be holding back and not using hoses and so on. Is the problem likely to spread to other areas, particularly in south London?

Mrs. Bottomley

I understand that the difficulties may well be largely resolved by the end of the weekend, although some may extend into next week. I am advised that consumers throughout London are required to act with restraint, although the hosepipe ban will apply specifically to south-east London. I shall certainly pass on my hon. Friend's remarks about the need for greater clarification in the information that is provided to customers generally, but I remind him that the emergency response centre, which is well manned, can give immediate advice to anybody with a query.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does the Minister accept that what she has said this morning is of no comfort whatsoever to my constituents, who are absolutely fed up with the fact that they have been drinking below-standard water for some time and that there have been pollution incidents which, frankly, are extremely worrying? This is the last straw for people who live in a somewhat inadequate environment.

Will the hon. Lady answer the question about accountability, and will she acknowledge that the events of the past few days have made a farce of the £30 million advertising campaign by the water companies on the merits of their system?

Mrs. Bottomley

I would not seek to deny that all those years of under-investment by the Opposition have long-term consequences. Inevitably, when water is in public ownership, it is one of the easiest places to cut back on investment in times of difficulty. Privatisation will ensure that there are proper plans for long-term investment in the water industry. That is the crucial point.

However, I would not seek to minimise the difficulty for people in the hon. Lady's constituency, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). I make it clear that Thames Water is taking all steps possible to ensure that supplies are brought in by tanker, static tanks, bowsers and stand pipes. The hon. Lady will be reassured to know that hospitals are being given priority.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) what is becoming the dubious privilege of having treatment work's in our constituencies that supply much of London's water: he has the Hampton works, and I have the Ashford works. Will my hon. Friend confirm that larvae's enthusiasm for breeding has everything to do with the hot weather and nothing to do with the Water Act 1989? Will she confirm that, far from doing what Opposition Members suggest, the Water Act 1989 will require the implementation of higher standards and more investment in the future?

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend is right. The key point about the privatisation of the water industry is that in future it will be independently and effectively regulated and information will be made widely available to the public. The difficulty at the Hampton treatment works is unacceptable, but it is not a health risk. It is important to reassure people about that, following the alarmist fears that have been expressed about larvae. Action is being taken and I understand that remedial and maintenance work will be completed before long.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

Is the Minister aware that the problem has spread to north London? At nine o'clock this morning, numerous instances in the Sudbury hill area of my constituency were reported to me by telephone and in person of the supply being cut off.

Is the Minister aware that the reason why Thames Water is in such a state of complete confusion, without contingency plans or the means to set the minds of the public at rest, is that its senior management and management have spent all their time recently preparing for privatisation? They have been so busy ordering helicopters, executive jets and all the other paraphernalia of big-business management that they have forgotten the consumer. Is the Minister satisfied that those people are fit to manage a privatised industry? The consumers of London think differently. Will she call in the chairman of Thames Water and give him a dressing-down about his failure to meet the water needs of London? Does she recognise the enormous harm and damage being done to communities affected by this disastrous situation?

Mrs. Bottomley

If the present situation is so bad, why cannot the Labour party understand why we are so anxious to change? We are quite convinced that the future regime will make substantial improvements. The water industry will be free to invest and will be required to make long-term investment plans. It will improve investment, regulation and the availability of information. Those are the crucial advantages of privatisation.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I invite my hon. Friend to send a message of comfort to those who fear for the future? While not being complacent, may I say that most of my constituents have had no problems with their water supply or its condition because they are supplied by Rickmansworth water company, which has always been a private——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The private notice question is about Thames Water and south London.

Mr. Greenway

I represent a small part of Sudbury and must express my concern about possible damage to its supply from Thames Water. Perhaps the supply will be better when it is run in the same way as Rickmansworth water company.

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the long-standing existence of many private water companies. About 25 per cent. of the water supplied in this country is supplied by private statutory water companies. Although my hon. Friend's constituents have not been affected so far, I remind him and others that in one hour a hosepipe uses the same amount of water as a family of four uses in a week. With this hot weather, many people would be well advised to be cautious about their use of water. The current difficulties are long standing; in times of high demand and hot weather, difficulties of supply are not unprecedented. I recognise that the problem is quite worrying for hon. Members' constituents in south London. Thames Water is taking all possible steps to remedy it at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Minister aware that the water supply in some parts of London is so polluted that it can be chewed rather than drunk? I am surprised that the Secretary of State has not told Thames Water to charge for the extra rations that are being delivered.

Will the Minister explain why, when we have a heavy downpour in London, the sewers break, but that when we have a bit of sun we have a drought on our hands? Is that not an indictment of the Government's 10 years of under-investment in the water industry in London and the rest of the country? Would it not be better if Thames Water diverted the money that it is wasting on its ridiculous advertising campaign on behalf of the Tory party to the infrastructure of the industry, which is what the people of London want and deserve?

Mrs. Bottomley

Only the hon. Gentleman, with his quaint attitude to figures, could regard an increase of 50 per cent. in investment as a cut. We have an answer to the problem—the Water Act 1989.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call the two hon. Members who have been rising to speak, the Front-Bench spokesman for the Labour party and the Minister. I remind hon. Members that we are discussing a problem in south London, not a general matter.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Has not the Labour party completely missed the point about Thames Water, the present difficulties and the Water Act 1989? Under the Water Act, because standards of service matter, there will be a consumers' charter. The consumer will be offered a discount on his bill every time the water companies fail in their responsibility to connect services to the consumer. That will give the water companies every incentive to get their act together and provide the consumer with a comprehensive service. Far from the Water Act and privatisation making matters more difficult, it will be very much to the advantage of the consumer if it is implemented as quickly as possible.

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend puts it far more effectively than I can.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Minister answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), which she has so far avoided? Will she confirm that, once the water industry is in private hands, Ministers will not be accountable to hon. Members when a crisis such as this arises? Will she confirm that the Government are running away from accountability?

Mrs. Bottomley

Ministers will not be responsible for the day-to-day management of the water industry. Rightly and properly, that will be a matter for the water companies. Local authorities will have power to check on drinking water quality. A drinking water inspectorate will be created, the findings of which will be publicly available. We think that that is the proper and most appropriate way of supplying water.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Does the Minister realise that the only consolation in her statement for water consumers in south London is that it was not made by the Secretary of State? Does she recognise that the problems facing consumers in south London stem from an operational failure by the management of Thames Water? Whatever she says, it is clear from the information that she has provided that Thames Water's management has failed the consumers of south London. How in future can those consumers have any confidence in water when it is privatised because it will have exactly the same management and there will be no accountability to the House? Ministers will be unable to answer about problems such as those that consumers are facing in south London this morning.

The Minister tried to obfuscate about investment figures, but the reality is that Thames Water has had a lower level of investment over the past few years. Consumers in south London are now suffering as a result of that lack of investment. Surely there is no confidence in the management of Thames Water or the stewardship of Ministers. Water consumers in south London and the rest of the country have made it abundantly clear that privatisation will only make the problems worse.

Mrs. Bottomley

On the contrary, it is clear that the difficulties have occurred while the water supply is in the public sector. The long-term investment plan and the ability to raise money independently are fundamental to the proposals in the Water Act 1989. We believe strongly that the consumer will benefit greatly from having a separate provision of water services and water regulation.

I regret that Opposition Members must exploit the present very hot weather and high demand in addition to acknowledged maintenance and remedial difficulties at Hampton to make petty party political points. It is clear that the consumers in south-east London are most affected. They need to know that an emergency line is available and that Thames Water is doing all it can to restore supplies and to provide interim supplies. We are confident that moving the water industry into the private sector will be for the long-term benefit of the users of water. That move will ensure high standards, long-term investment and regular supplies.

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