HC Deb 22 July 1991 vol 195 cc787-94 5.29 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the failure of disinfection over the weekend in water supplied to the public by Three Valleys Water Services plc.

The company draws water from the Thames for treatment at Iver and supply through two of its subsidiary companies—Colne Valley and Rickmansworth—to some half a million people in north-west London and adjacent parts of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. At about 3.50 pm on Saturday instrumentation suggested that part of the chlorination equipment might not be operating normally. It took time to diagnose the fault and assess its consequences, but by Saturday evening it was cleat to the company that some 2 million to 3 million gallons of water had been put into the distribution system without the level of chlorination needed for satisfactory disinfection. The company informed the appropriate local and health authorities, and at about midnight began to seek the assistance of the police and the media in order to warn its customers to boil water for at least a minute before using it. An extensive programme of sampling was also initiated within the distribution network on Saturday night.

The drinking water inspectorate in my Department was informed of the incident by the company at 11 pm on Saturday. The inspectorate has already started a thorough investigation in order to satisfy itself that the company responded in a timely and appropriate manner. It will also wish to identify the causes of the incident, and any improvements in equipment or procedures that ought to be made to prevent any possibility of a recurrence. If there is evidence that water unfit for human consumption has been supplied, the inspectorate will consider whether to recommend a prosecution.

The company has told us that, apart from chlorination, the remainder of the treatment process appears to have been functioning normally. The company has also informed us that the preliminary results of its sampling show that, despite the failure of disinfection, residual chlorine was present in all samples tested, and that only a small proportion of samples showed traces of any bacteria. My advice is that boiling the water in accordance with the company's guidance should have been an effective protection against any bacteria present.

I understand that the situation has been reviewed this afernoon by the water company in consultation with the local authorities and the health authorities, and I have just heard that those bodies have unanimously agreed that customers in the area no longer need to boil drinking water. The decision was made in the light off continual satisfactory sampling throughout the area.

The Government have established a system of independent statutory regulation of the water industry. We believe that the regulators have the necessary powers to deal with a situation of this kind. But, if it is shown to be necessary, we shall ensure that those powers are further strengthened.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for giving the House the latest information about what has happened. Unfortunately, the statement leaves many questions unanswered.

I hope that the Minister will explain several matters to the House. First, will he tell the House why, if the incident occurred before 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, the public were not notified until the early hours of Sunday morning, and indeed, in many cases not until more than 12 hours after the incident? Will the Minister tell us, too, who will pay for the police time spent patrolling the affected areas to warn people of the dangers of drinking the contaminated water?

Will the Minister tell us more about what has happened in the past 24 hours, and what is known about the health impact of the incident? Will he confirm that several children have been taken to hospital, and that local doctors and chemists have been exceptionally busy?

In connection with the causes of the incident, is monitoring of chlorination not one of the simplest procedures in the treatment of water, carried out on a continuous basis, with continuous assessment, so that any company should know of any problem within seconds of something going wrong? Can the Minister tell us what went wrong not only with the procedures but with the fail-safe devices? Were those devices not adequate, despite the assurances given by the company only weeks ago?

Will the Minister confirm that this is not the first time that the companies forming Three Valleys Water Services plc have had to advise consumers to boil water? Will he acknowledge that Three Valleys is among the companies that were responsible for no fewer than 34 incidents of microbiological contamination of drinking water in 1990?

Perhaps the most serious implication of recent events is the fact that such incidents show that the entire system of drinking water regulation is inadequate. Is it not a fact that the drinking water inspectorate—the so-called drinking water watchdog—did not even visit the company for its inspection, but subcontracted the work to the consulting engineering company Watson-Hawksley?

The drinking water inspectorate report published only last week said that the company's procedures were satisfactory. If the procedures were satisfactory, why did the incident take place? If they were not satisfactory, why did the report not pick up that fact? Does that not prove the need for the drinking water inspectorate to consist of more than a couple of dozen civil servants in the Department of the Environment? We need an independent regulatory body with teeth.

Finally, does the Minister accept that, if the water supplied had to be boiled before it could be drunk, it cannot be deemed to have been fit for consumption, but must be considered unfit? Will the hon. Gentleman, who has the power to prosecute the company, tell us whether he intends to do so? Will he take the opportunity to tell us whether he intends to prosecute the other companies that charge consumers record prices but do not provide the service that all consumers have a right to demand?

Mr. Trippier

I thank the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) for her opening remarks. I should not be making a statement to the House if I were not entirely satisfied with the information to hand. I believe that it was necessary for an inspection to take place, and the investigation is being carried out by the drinking water inspectorate. The hon. Lady would not expect me to prejudice the findings of the report. Clearly, the decision whether to prosecute will be made in the light of the evidence that comes to hand.

In reply to the hon. Lady's general question about prosecution, Environment Ministers will not prevaricate if the necessary evidence is available for a court case to be undertaken and won. I must remind the House that, after all, it was the Government who set up the drinking water inspectorate in the first place.

I am not aware of any provision for the company to be charged for police time.

The hon. Lady asked what had happened during the past 24 hours. The most significant event has been a meeting between the local authorities and local health authorities. I am delighted, as the hon. Lady will be, that the unanimous decision has been taken that there is no further need to boil the water. It may seem strange that, within 48 hours of the first warnings being sounded, the company has lifted the restriction, but I understand that it has made a statement this afternoon to the effect that it genuinely believed that, if there were the slightest danger to health—serious or not so serious—it was right to impose the restriction. On that point, I am happy to concur with the company's statement.

I question whether the hon. Lady was right to suggest that a mistake at a plant should or could have been put right within seconds. That is stretching credulity to breaking point.

The hon. Lady was correct about the last visit made by the inspectorate. The inspectorate used consultants—that is quite common. That is the way most of its work is carried out. Such consultants still have to conform to the same regulations, whether national standards or standards imposed on us by the European Community. I do not think that that matters. I can assure the hon. Lady and the House that when the inspectors visited the plant at Rickmansworth during 1990—this was referred to in the report published by the DWI last week—it concluded that the disinfection arrangements were satisfactory.

There seemed to have been a number of questions about delays in informing the public. They are precisely the questions that I hope will be dealt with by the investigation.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

My constituents will be grateful to learn that their water supply, as my hon. Friend said, will be back to normal some time today. They will not be very pleased to hear, however, that the delay still cannot be explained.

My hon. Friend has said that the problem started at 3.50 pm. The expert who belatedly came on LBC yesterday morning said that it started at about 9.30 pm. There are eight hours between 4 pm and midnight, but this expert said that it was dawn before an attempt was begun to contact the media.

I listened to LBC from 8 am to midday, constantly trying to—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend will know that I was doing the ironing. LBC said repeatedly that it was trying to contact the water authorities but getting no response. After invitations from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and me, a spokesman miraculously appeared to say that he could give some information.

I hope that we shall find out what went on and why. Like the hon. Member for Dewsbury, I am worried about previous instances, and I hope that we shall find out exactly what went wrong. The comments made yesterday by the company chairman on LBC were useless, and one wonders about the quality of management in the organisation when it can put forward someone who bumbles and mumbles like him. I hope that my constituents can be assured that if, God forbid, such a thing occurs again, they and all the authorities involved will be immediately informed.

Mr. Trippier

It is precisely my hon. Friend's last point that concerns me. I am happy to give him the assurance that he seeks: the investigation will be principally concerned with the problem of information and of delay.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

We should already have learnt the lesson of the inability to plan for this sort of incident from the toxic waste pollution in Norfolk and from the Camelford example—we tried to close the stable door in both cases after the horses had bolted. Emergency civil planning and the ability to communicate information failed again, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) said, partly because the media could not be reached when needed and partly because the water companies could not be reached when they were needed.

When, eventually, announcements were made, we find that some people were still getting leaflets through their doors this morning—written in gobbledegook for those who speak English, let alone the many in the area who do not. The leaflet described "an operational incident" and referred to partly treated water being put into supply". People needed to be told that the water was not fit to drink and that they should not drink it unless it was boiled. They did not need these sorts of half-truths concealing what they wanted to know.

If people were responsible for polluting, they should pay. If people were harmed, they should be compensated. Will the citizens charter apply to this sort of defect in consumer services?

Mr. Trippier

I concur with a number of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I share his worry about delays—no one in any political party has a monopoly of concern in this matter—but I have some difficulty reconciling what happened at Camelford with what happened in this case. I can see many differences, and the hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I do not agree with his parallel.

As for compensation, the hon Gentleman may have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister refer in the statement this afternoon to the role of Ofwat and the responsibilities that it will carry under his initiative. My right hon. Friend said that we will introduce legislation to make sure that the regulators have adequate powers to require the award of compensation in response to legitimate customer complaints.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituents take this major lapse at the Iver water treatment works, based in my constituency, very seriously? Is he aware that I only heard about it from the church pulpit at 10 o'clock yesterday morning? It is unacceptable that more than 12 hours should have elapsed before my constituents were notified. There should be proper procedures to ensure that the customers affected are immediately notified. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry looks into that and sets in place procedures to make certain that such immediate notification is given in future?

Mr. Trippier

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, given my statement and subsequent answers, I share his anxiety about this matter and I take it seriously.

We must look at what can be done to improve communications and not expect such information to be disseminated in the form of parish notices from the pulpit.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

What are the requirements by the controlling body governing the numbers of people on duty and the chlorination mechanism? Is the latter automatic or visual, continuous or periodic? Secondly, did the system depend on service reservoirs; was it direct or indirect, or a mixture of the two? Thirdly, is the company wholly owned by shareholders in the United Kingdom, or is it a subsidiary of a large water undertaking outside the United Kingdom?

Mr. Trippier

The answer to the last question is that a French company has a large holding, not that I know what difference that can make. This is not a privatisation issue—the company has been privatised for a considerable time.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's earlier point, and I hope that the investigation will establish whether enough people were available to deal with the problem. I am entirely satisfied that, once the communication was made to my Department and to the drinking water inspectorate, there were enough people in place to notify Ministers and others so that the necessary regulatory action could be taken—which, of course, it was.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I very much welcome the decision to set up the inquiry, which is the right way to ascertain what happened. Will it ex amine what is possibly the most serious aspect of the case? The company had agreed a rectification policy with authorities such as the DWI. Then, just before midnight, it tried to contact the local media and rang local radio stations. Those that replied—not all of them did—were not interested. When the company got hold of the television studios, they said that the matter was not of national interest. It was certainly of interest to my constituents. Fortunately, the problem was not serious in this case, but I hope that the inquiry will see whether there is some immediate way of using broadcasting stations, which must recognise that they have a social duty to the public and my constituents.

Mr. Trippier:

I am bound to agree with my hon. Friend's last point. I too have heard evidence to the effect that a number of broadcasting stations said that they were not interested because this was not of national interest. I question whether that is a responsible attitude to take.

Whether or not the drinking water inspectorate deals with this problem in its investigation is irrelevant, because I assure my hon. Friend that I shall deal with it.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

Will the Minister make clear his concern about the obvious ineptitude and tardiness of the water company's response in this matter? We do not need an inquiry to reveal that. My constituents found that they had to inform each other of the danger by word of mouth—indeed, my own household did so. They encountered mind-boggling complacency on the part of the water authority. It is time that the Minister expressed his concern in the clearest and most strident terms, so that those who might be tempted to go down this path in future will be deterred. The inquiry must not become a whitewashing exercise.

Mr. Trippier

Although it is repeating what I said earlier, I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that I would not have made the statement or answered questions on it unless I was concerned about this matter. We would not have called for an investigation by the drinking water inspectorate in the way that it will be carried out unless the whole of the Department of the Environment and the drinking water inspectorate were concerned about it. The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer and will appreciate that I cannot say that the company has been dilatory or complacent in the way that he suggests, or make any such comment, until the investigation has been completed.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that this incident has caused great concern to my constituents in Uxbridge and Hillingdon? Will he ensure that the inquiry will look into the means by which these automated systems operate and whether there is a suitable trigger mechanism to alert the company, its management and the emergency services in the event of a failure of this kind? Will he assure the House not only that Three Valleys will learn the lessons but that they will be applied to every water company in the country, because the possibility of much more serious faults than the one that occurred in this instance is very alarming?

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the police, who from the early hours of Sunday morning, did an absolutely first-class job in notifying consumers by the use of loud hailers and leaflets so that the vast majority of people in the area were aware of the incident? They knew by the time they got up in the morning that they had to boil their water. Will he please look at the kind of notification that water companies are obliged to send to consumers to ensure that it is written clearly, so that everybody can easily understand it?

Mr. Trippier

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks about notification and undertake to look at that. I join him in congratulating the police on the wonderful role that they played in responsibly informing people in the area to the best of their ability. My hon. Friend asked about the lessons to be learned and about an adequate trigger point. I assure him that we shall look at that in particular with a view to replicating throughout the country anything that needs to be done as a result of the lessons learned from this experience.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I thank the Minister for his detailed statements, which will go some way to reassuring people. None the less, we can all thank the Almighty that a major disaster has been averted: one can only imagine what might have happened. I join him in paying tribute to the police for their rapid response, and I pay particular tribute to the police in Harrow for the way in which they acted and patrolled the streets.

Local health authorities also acted promptly but, as hon. Members have said, we need a cogent and detailed explanation about the company's delay in notifying the public and the media. Will the Minister consider the need for a further statement, bearing in mind that the House is soon going into recess, to deal with that matter? On the assumption that the Iver works, which has been mentioned, deals primarily or exclusively with Thames river water, may we have a proper explanation to reassure the public about the way in which that water is treated and an assurance that the contamination coefficients will be properly sorted out by the regulatory authorities and the company?

Mr. Trippier

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we shall have to return to this matter. I entirely accept that there must be a cogent explanation about precisely what happened in terms of the delay and what went wrong in the plant. My hon. Friend will understand that some of that information might have to be used as evidence if a prosecution were taken out by the Department of the Environment. Therefore, one might have to handle that carefully. I assure my hon. Friend that I intend the report to be made public at the appropriate time.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and for the announcement of the inquiry by the drinking water inspectorate. It is important for the inspectorate to look at what happened and why it happened, at mechanisms that exist to stop it happening again and, in particular, at the matter that has already been raised with my hon. Friend, about informing people about what went on. From what my hon. Friend has said, I am even more perplexed than I was yesterday, and my constituents will also be perplexed.

Every time I listen to a radio or television bulletin, I hear different times being mentioned and different versions of what happened and when attempts were made to inform the public. Apparently, the company was able to inform the drinking water inspectorate at 11 o'clock but started to try to tell people who were likely to drink the water at 12 o'clock. That is unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the inquiry will examine that specific aspect? Lastly, but most importantly, may I be assured that the report of the inquiry will be made entirely public so that people can assess for themselves what has been done in their name?

Mr. Trippier

My hon. Friend may not have heard my assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) about the information that has come to light. I repeat that assurance—that it is absolutely essential that the information arising from the investigation should be made public. There is an interim stage at which we shall have to decide whether a prosecution may be necessary or appropriate.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern about information supplied to customers/consumers in this matter, and I assure him that the investigation will be especially directed at that. The timings in my statement are definitive because we have gleaned them from several sources and they have been confirmed and reconfirmed, in contrast to the speculative timings that my hon. Friend may have heard elsewhere.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip, Northwood)

May I add my thanks to my hon. Friend for reassuring the House? The investigation should look into the problem of notifying people of such emergencies at weekends, because that was the real cause of the difficulty. Not all members of the public are as assiduous as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) in listening to the radio, nor are they all as indulgent as I was in going to buy my little son an ice cream, when I found in the shop a leaflet notifying me and other residents of my constituency of the dangers. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the police and other services have the necessary manpower to inform the public of such emergencies at weekends?

Mr. Trippier

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Much of the problem associated with this matter arose from the fact that the incident occurred at a weekend. I hope that the investigation will specifically address the matter of the problems that can arise at weekends.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

My hon. Friend has rightly observed that this is a regrettable incident. Does he agree that one of the main advantages of privatisation of the industry is the complete separation of the provider of services from the regulator of standards, the so-called poacher-gamekeeper relationship? That will stand us in good stead in this and perhaps in any similar matters in future.

Mr. Trippier

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was somewhat surprised by the intervention of the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who did not pay a compliment where I thought that one was appropriate. The regulatory system that we have set up and of which I am enormously proud brought about the separation of the poacher and gamekeeper roles. That is essential. The House and the country can draw comfort from the fact that the investigation being carried out by the independent regulatory body set up by a Conservative Government will be open, frank and of high quality. We certainly did not have such a body when the last Labour Government were in office.