HC Deb 16 January 1992 vol 201 cc1162-6

`( )—(1) In section 68 of the Water Industry Act 1991, subsection (3) shall be omitted and there shall be substituted—

"(3) An undertaker shall be in breach of his duty under subsection (91)(a) above if water is unwholesome, or becomes unwholesome, at any point along a pipe supplying the premises concerned, unless—

  1. (a) the unwholeness arises from a leak which is the responsibility of the occupier, or
  2. (b) the occupier, or a person on his behalf, has wilfully or negligently caused damage to the pipe and such damage has caused the unwholesomeness.".'.—[Mr. Win Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths

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

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this we may take the following: New clause 9—Responsibility for sewage pipes—

'( )—(l) In section 98 of the Water Industry Act 1991, after subsection (1) there shall be inserted— (1A) A sewerage undertaker shall remedy any defect in a sewer to which this section applies at any point along the whole such length of the pipe, unless any such defect arises from wilful or negligent damage caused to the pipe directly by an occupier of any premises to which the pipe is connected.".'.

Amendment No. 4, in clause 24, page 20, line 15, at end insert— `(aa) the number, length and location of pipes in the area of each undertaker through which drinking water is supplied to domestic and non-domestic premises which contribute to a deterioration in the quality of water supplied particularly when it could be a public health hazard;'. Amendment No. 5, in page 20, line 19, at end insert 'including the wholesomeness or otherwise of water supplied in accordance with section 68 of the Water Industry Act 1991 as amended.'.

Mr. Griffiths

New clauses 8 and 9 bring an important new principle into play. At present, the customer is responsible for the pipe from the main to the property. In the case of a terrace house the length could be a metre or two; in some cases it is the length of a garden; in others it can be at least the length of a lane. The Government are responsible for ensuring that tap water quality meets the standards set out in the European Community directive. The water and sewerage undertakers are responsible, on behalf of the Government, for ensuring that the standards are adhered to, and we believe that they should be responsible for the entire length of pipe to a customer's tap or toilet. The Government should accept that the undertakers will assume that responsibility. However, the new clauses contain the proviso that, if a customer can be shown to have been negligent about the care of pipes under his property, he should bear the cost of dealing with any resulting problems in respect of the quality of water or sewerage. That is a fairly straightforward principle.

In this group of amendments, we make the point that the director general should collect information about any water-carrying pipes that, in themselves, could cause a deterioration of water quality, which, in turn, could be harmful to the consumer. In this respect there are two important contaminants or pollutants. One of them is lead, and there is a well established link between the presence of lead in water and brain damage, particularly in the case of young children. Indeed, this theory has an historic and well established pedigree."The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" could have been shortened considerably if Gibbon had simply pointed out that it was the magnificent lead-lined water systems of the Romans that did so much damage to their intellectual powers.

Lead is the first problem in respect of which the director general should collect information about pipes that can cause damage to the health of consumers—information to be made publicly available. In this country there are about 2 million people who drink water that fails to meet the EC standard of 50 micrograms per litre. This is clear from samples taken by the water inspectors.

The figure of 2 million does not include children and adults who go to the old schools and hospitals that still exist. Medical research has demonstrated that lead levels above the EC figure of 50 micrograms per litre, in combination with exposure from other sources, can result in blood lead levels that have adverse biochemical effects, including interference with the formation of red blood cells. That is why we are keen to establish for consumers a list of the places in which these offending pipes are to be found. Samples that were taken in 1988 and 1989 indicated that, in the country as a whole, almost one quarter of water zones did not comply with the EC limit of 50 micrograms per litre. Thus, lead is a widespread and serious problem.

The other pipes that give rise to concern are those that are lined with coal tar pitch. Most of them are old mains, and they are to be found principally in the Thames water authority area, particularly in and around London, and to a certain extent in the south-west water area. In England and Wales 102 water zones are affected. Over a period, the water combines with the coal tar pitch to produce chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These are extremely deadly chemicals, and under EC regulations only 0.2 of a mocrogram per litre of water is allowed.

As it is a cancer-causing agent, the consumer has a right to know exactly where such mains are and whether there is a potential problem. Altogether, it affects about 4 per cent. of water zones, which in the last two years for which measurements were taken had levels which exceeded the EC limit for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. That is why we want the water companies to take full responsibility, as the Government's agents in this matter, for meeting the standards of the EC water quality directives and why, in these two particular cases of which there is public knowledge, the damaging effect on people's health of lead pipes and of coal-tar, pitch-lined pipes, should become public knowledge and information on these matters should be collected and printed.

I shall be returning to the more general question of our water supplies and our beach and river water quality standards when looking at some later amendments, and also to some more specific problems relating to lead.

I hope that the Government can respond positively by saying that the water undertakers will accept this responsibility for pipes, right to the customers' taps and toilets, and that they will get the director general to publish specific information about lead pipes and coal-tar, pitch-lined pipes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

New clause 8 seeks to place an unfair burden of responsibility on the water supplier. Whereas now the water supplier is, quite rightly, responsible for the wholesomeness of water in water supply pipes, the new clause would make the water supplier additionally responsible for water in customers' pipes unless the water supplier was able to prove that the customer had damaged the pipes or caused a leak which had led to contamination of the water. It would clearly be unreasonable to make the supplier responsible for the condition of a large number of other people's water pipes.

Safeguards for water wholesomeness are already stringent. Ninety-nine per cent. of the 3.3 million tests carried out in 1990 by the drinking water inspectorate were satisfactory. Indeed, privatisation has enabled the water industry to set in place a programme for remedial action for those supplies which do not yet comply with standards. This will involve a capital investment programme of over £2 billion by 1995. So new clause 8 would not acid any significant protection to the consumer but would place an unfair burden on the water supplier.

New clause 9 is redundant. It seems to be trying to make sewer undertakers liable for repairs to public sewers, but they are already so liable.

With regard to further information, clause 24 already makes provision for the director general to collect information from water undertakers about their performance against standards set out in section 38 of the Water Industry Act 1991. In this context, quality of drinking water is obviously of paramount importance. As I made clear in Committee, this is not a matter for the Director General of Water Services; it is a matter for the drinking water inspectorate, which enforces the standards. knowledge of the whereabouts of pipes is needed at times, but that information is already available. Section 198 of the Water Industry Act requires undertakers to keep records of all pipes and underground works vested in the undertakers and to make those records available, free of charge, for inspection by the public.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I hear what the Minister is saying and I only wish that it were correct—unless, of course, Dwr Cymru has got its own legal position absolutely wrong. I shall be referring to this information in more detail later, but I will read one sentence of the reply I received to my request for information about lead pipes.

The chairman of Welsh Water, John Jones, said this: Unfortunately, I am unable to provide details of areas specifically affected by lead piping since Dwr Cymru has no right to obtain this information. However, I believe that it can safely be assumed that all areas will have some properties with lead pipework. He could not give me specific information.

Mr. Baldry

As I made clear—and of course this is correct because it is on the face of an Act of Parliament—section 198 of the Water Industry Act requires undertakers to keep records of all pipes and underground works vested in those undertakers and to make those records available, free of charge, for inspection by the public. In short, if the director general has need of such information, he too has access to it. This amendment is unnecessary.

7.15 pm

The purpose of amendment No. 4 is to require the director to collect and publish information about drinking water quality. Again, this amendment shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the tough regulatory regime that we have already put in place arid of the various regulators.

Drinking water quality standards are not a matter for the Director General of Water Services. The standards for drinking water quality are set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the water quality regulations which are enforced by the drinking water inspectorate. The inspectorate already regularly obtains information from the water companies about the quality of water supplied under no fewer than 57 parameters and the inspectorate publishes an annual report giving a comprehensive description of drinking water quality in England and Wales tested rigorously against the very demanding criteria of the water quality regulations.

Therefore, this amendment is not only not appropriate but would simply lead to a duplication of effort, requiring the director general to collect and publish such information—an exercise already ably and competently undertaken by the drinking water inspectorate.

The new clauses and amendments are redundant, otiose or unnecessary.

Question put and negatived.

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