HC Deb 16 January 1992 vol 201 cc1182-91
Mr. Win Griffiths

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in line 6, at end insert—

`(6) In arranging for the publication of an information under subsection (4) above, the Director shall have regard to the need to include, so far as practicable, any matter which relates to—

  1. (a) the health or physical well-being of consumers of water supplied by the undertaker concerned; and
  2. (b) (in consultation with the NRA) the well-being of the environment, flora or fauna, or any amenity.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 7, in clause 25, line 16, at end insert—

'(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) above, each water undertaker shall include on each annual bill issued to customers a statement of whether drinking water supplied by the undertaker to the customer concerned has on every day during the previous twelve months fulfilled quality standards presented by or on behalf of the European Community and in force on the day concerned.

(3) Where on any day to which subsection (2) above is applicable such quality standards as are therin referred to have not been fulfilled, the undertaker shall include in the statement made under that subsection details of—

  1. (a) the dates on which the standards were not fulfilled;
  2. (b) the substances and amounts of such substances in respect of which the standards were not fulfilled;
  3. (c) the principal health effects of the substances referred to in paragraph (b) above;
  4. (d) the reasons which in the view of the undertaker caused the failure to fulfil standards; and
  5. (e) the steps which it proposes to take to improve drinking water quality in the area concerned'.

No. 8, in clause 27, line 40, after 'performance', insert `(including the quality of river and other inland waterways and beach water into which sewerage treatment plants discharge)'.

No. 9, in line 22 at beginning insert— '(5) Subject to subsection (6) below, where on any day to which subsection (2) above is applicable such quality standards as are therein referred to have not been fulfilled, the undertaker shall include in the statement made under that subsection details of—

  1. (a) the dates on which the standards were not fulfilled;
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  3. (b) the full details in respect of which the standards were not fulfilled;
  4. (c) the possible health effects of the failure to meet these standards referred to in paragraph (b) above;
  5. (d) the reasons which in the view of the undertaker caused the failure to fulfil standards; and
  6. (e) the steps which it proposes to take to improve sewerage services in the area concerned'.

No. 10, in line 35 at end insert— ' "(6) In arranging for the publication of any information under subsection (4) above, the Director shall have regard to the need to include, so far as practicable, any matter which relates to—

  1. (a) (in consultation with the NRA) the health or physical well-being of people, and especially children, served by the undertaker concerned and
  2. (b) (in consultation with the NRA) the well-being of the environment, flora or fauna, or any amenity.".'.

No. 11, in clause 28 line 45 at end insert—

`( 1A) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection ( I) above each sewerage services undertaker shall include on each annual bill issued to customers a statement of whether these services supplied by the undertaker to the customer concerned has on each occasion tests have been carried out during the previous twelve months fulfilled quality standards prescribed by or on behalf of the European Community and in force on the day concerned.'.

Mr. Griffiths

The purpose of the amendments is to bring home to the public the issues relating to the quality of the tap water that they drink, the water at the bathing beaches on which they may seek to enjoy themselves and of the rivers and waterways of England and Wales.

We want two types of information to be available. We have touched on one element in earlier debates—that is, the publication of general information by the director general on the quality of tap water and the quality of bathing beach water, in as much as that relates to the way in which the water companies and sewerage undertakings provide a service to deal with sewage. That service must ensure a high quality standard in the waters around our shores.

First I shall deal with tap water quality and the European Community directive. I have already mentioned lead pollution, and I shall not go into much detail on it now. Almost a quarter of our water zones have pollution levels that exceed the 50 micrograms per litre permitted under the EC directive. We know that lead in water definitely damages our health, and a large part of the country is affected by that type of pollution. More than 2 million people are at risk.

There may also be problems concerning aluminium, which is sometimes naturally present in our water and is sometimes added by the the water companies to help make the water clear. Again, about 2 million people are affected. They drink water which sampling procedures show to be above the EC permitted level of 200 micrograms per litre. Just over 10 per cent. of water zones do not meet the level set in the European Community directive.

8.30 pm

We all know that not long ago the Medical Research Council studied 80 districts in England and Wales and found that the risk of Alzheimer's disease was one and a half times higher where the mean aluminium concentrate exceeded 110 micrograms per litre, than in areas where it was 10 micrograms per litre. That level of 110 microgrames is well below the permitted EC level. Yet there is strong evidence of a link between aluminium and Alzheimer's disease. I am pleased that some water companies have stopped using aluminium to help keep the water clear.

Several other damaging chemicals and substances are present in water in the United Kingdom. Almost 2 million people drink water which has nitrate levels above those permitted by the EC. Almost a third of water zones in England and Wales exceed the permitted levels. Some 298 water sources exceed the maximum admitted concentrations of pesticides. That probably affects more than 1 million people. Friends of the Earth took Thames Water to the European Court over pesticide pollution. I am pleased to say that the court case has been withdrawn and Thames Water and the other water companies have agreed to install treatment plants to prevent pesticide concentrations in our water.

Another issue of serious concern is groundwater pollution. Some 30 per cent. of our water supply comes from aquifers, wells and the like. Yet 10 per cent. of the supply has concentrations of cancer-causing solvents higher than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation. The National Environment Research Council has expressed fears about the contamination of our groundwater. Doctor Stephen Foster is head of the NERC British geological survey hydrogeology research group. He said in a press notice: Groundwater is under threat from an ever increasing number of soluble chemicals from urban and industrial activities and modern agricultural practices … Groundwater pollution takes place stealthily, almost imperceptibly and the slow movement of water from the land surface to deep aquifers means that it will take many years after a persistent chemical has entered the ground before it affects the quality of groundwater supplies. By the time the danger is realised large amounts of pollutants arc already present…we can no longer take high quality groundwater for granted. I am pleased to say that the NERC is looking into the problem, but we already know that it is a growing problem.

The EC allows 800 grams per litre of trihalomethanes to be present in the water. Yet Germany has adopted an even lower limit of only 20 grammes per litre. The United States has a permitted level similar to that of the EC, but proposals have been made to reduce it, because research there has indicated a highly significant relationship between chloroform and cancers, particularly of the bladder, colon and rectum. So moves are afoot to deal with that problem.

I have already referred to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In Britain 4 per cent. of our water zones have concentrations above the permitted maximum. We have other problems such as cryptosporidium, of which there have been serious outbreaks in Oxford, Swindon, Hull and Scotland. The ones in the Oxford and Swindon areas lasted for three weeks in 1989. People suffered severe vomiting and diarrhoea. It is an ever-present problem. Unfortunately, it has become more of a problem simply as a result of cost-cutting methods of filtering water. That is an issue of which consumers need to be aware.

It is amazing that the Government have allowed relaxations of the permitted amounts of pollutants which present health dangers in excessive amounts in our water. Unfortunately, the EC has agreed to the relaxations. Thames Water is protected from prosecution on cryptosporidium pollution. North West Water, Severn Trent Water, Northumbria Water, Yorkshire Water and Welsh Water are all permitted to exceed lead levels. In the north-west, there is as yet no date set for ending the relaxations. South West Water is permitted to exceed trihalomethane levels. Many water companies are allowed relaxations on faecal bacteria. Many companies have relaxations for aluminium. There are relaxations on the nitrate and pesticide levels for Anglian Water and Severn Trent.

So here we have the Government conniving to allow pollutants in our water at levels above those which are publicly acknowledged to pose a danger to health. That is why we believe not only that it is the responsibility of the director general to publish information on tap water but that such information should appear on water consumers' bills.

Last year, Which? magazine did a survey of the water companies and asked some of its members to write around to the water companies for information about the quality of their water. It found that 21 of the 44 water company responses did not supply information on the maximum levels of substances allowed in water; 17 of them gave no data which allowed comparisons to be made; nine of them gave data based on only three months information or less; 10 of the respondents gave the information in different ways to different customers who made the inquiry.

So there is no doubt that a great deal still needs to be done, despite what the Secretary of State said yesterday when he lauded the quality of British water as the best in Europe. I would not want to question that assertion, but what I am very concerned about is that, while making the assertion, the Government nevertheless allow pollutants in our water which are a danger to public health.

Let us take Wales as an example for some of the pollutants that I have already mentioned. As regards lead, samples have been taken in the county of Gwent, in the Brecknock district of Powys, in the Dynevor district of Dyfed, in Cardiff, in the Rhymney Valley district of Mid-Glamorgan, and in a whole swathe of territory from the north of Carmarthen bay across to Wrexham, where the lead levels are in excess of the EC maximum.

Trihalomethanes are also present in parts of Wales, and aluminium above recommended levels is to be found across the whole of Wales. I said earlier that I would refer in a little more detail to information supplied to me by Welsh Water on lead levels in south-east Wales. My inquiry of them showed that, in the city of Cardiff, for example, in Cardiff, North-West, 20 per cent. of the random samples taken exceeded permitted levels; in the Llanishen area 10 per cent.; in the Caerau/Fairwater area 25 per cent.; Cardiff-Docklands 25 per cent.; Cardiff, East 20 per cent.; Cardiff-Llandaff/Whitchurch 10 per cent.; Cardiff-Canton/Riverside 20 per cent.; and outside Cardiff, in the large town of Barry, in the Romilly Park-Wenvoe-Colcot areas, 15 per cent. Yet Welsh Water could not tell me exactly which houses were affected. That is why I believe it to be right that the water companies provide this information at least once a year on bills to consumers.

Welsh Water boasted about the availability of information to the public on the quality of their water. They said in a press release issued a few months ago: A register can be viewed during normal working hours at the company's offices at Aberaeron, Bangor, Brecon, Haverfordwest (Withybush), Hereford, Mold, Nelson, and Swansea (Kingsway). The citizens of Cardiff, where, as already shown, there is a serious lead problem, do not have access. The nearest office is an hour or more away on public transport, in Nelson. In Committee, I explained that my nearest office would be Swansea, a city that I might visit two or three times a year and then generally not in office hours.

So although, as the Minister will tell us, the information is available and different organisations publish it, it is not accessible to the customer. I should have thought that, under the impetus of the citizens charter, the Government would be keen to have this information available to consumers.

8.45 pm

Turning briefly to the water quality arising out of the provision of sewerage services, it is somewhat ironic that the Government have chosen to blow the trumpet of the effectiveness of privatisation in speeding up the improvement in the quality of these services by denigrating their own record in the priority that they gave these services in the 12 years that they were in power before privatisation; but that is the fact. Unfortunately, in all respects, privatisation has not pulled off the trick, because we find that, only at the end of last year, when the National Rivers Authority's report on river quality appeared, the quality of our river water over the preceding five years had gone down; 15 per cent. of the rivers and inland waterways had been downgraded and 11 per cent. upgraded, leaving us with a 4 per cent. deterioration. In Wales, there was a 17 per cent. deterioration.

In 1989–90, there were almost 27,000 pollution incidents, of which over 3,000 were serious, but it is interesting to note that there were only 309 successful prosecutions and that often these prosecutions resulted in fines which can only be described as minimal. In the Welsh Water area, for example, there were 17 prosecutions which resulted in fines amounting to £19,000, when the companies being fined had pre-tax profits of over £100 million.

A Friends of the Earth survey of the quality of Welsh beaches showed that 20 or 30 popular Welsh beaches contravened the EC's freshwater fisheries directive, and 10 of the 30 broke the EC's dangerous substances directive, mainly because of the cadmium levels present in the inland waterways.

On sewage treatment works, while it is true that the position has improved, there have nevertheless been many instances—hundreds—where the sewage treatment works have failed to meet even the relaxed standards allowed when the Government privatised the industry.

There are here important public health issues. To their credit, the Government continue to sponsor research into the public health effects of the pollution of our popular bathing beaches. There was the Blackpool study carried out by Lancaster university, which showed clearly that children were three times more likely to suffer from vomiting and five and a half times more likely to contract diarrhoea if they went in the water than if they remained on the beach. A study in Ramsgate showed a small increase in the reporting of gastrointestinal and diarrhoeal symptoms in bathers compared with non-bathers, at a beach which did not meet EC standards, whereas at Langland bay in Swansea, a beach which did meet the standards, no increase in gastrointestinal and diarrhoeal symptoms were reported.

The Government are therefore continuing the research. and I am pleased about that, but customers have the right to know whether the beaches in their area meet these standards. Again, I should have thought that the Government would want that information to be publicly available to the water companies' customers.

The Minister said earlier and in Committee that we were expecting too much of the director general. As other bodies, such as the National Rivers Authority, made it their business to report on river and beach water quality, and the drinking water inspectorate reports on tap water standards, he said that there was no need for that information to be brought together and provided to customers.

I am pleased to be able to say that the Water Services Association does not believe in that philosophy. In my post this morning—and I expect in the post of most hon. Members—was a fat book on all aspects of water quality—tap water, river water and beach water. If it can produce that, why cannot the director be given the duty of ensuring that customers have direct access to such information and do not have to travel up to 70 miles, as is the case for some customers in Wales, if they want to get to one of the offices where Welsh Water's information on water quality is available.

I hope that the Government, in the name of the citizens charter, are prepared to accept that customers have the right to know what is in the water that they drink and what is in the waters of our rivers, inland waterways and beaches, which may harm public health. I hope that the Government will be prepared to accept the amendments.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I shall speak briefly in support of amendment No. 6 and the others in the group. It is consistent with the policy behind the Bill that the public should be better informed after this legislation has been passed about services previously provided by either public or quasi-public utilities, as well as about other services.

As hon. Members who have been following the Bill will know, part I provides that information should be made available about water supply and levels of performance. That is right. People want to know about profitability, investment and the rest. However, one of the best tests of performance is quality.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State made it clear that, if we are to achieve good water quality, bills will have to increase by 50 per cent. in a relatively short time. That is a significant increase, but water is not a cheap service and I am not saying that it should be. I am one of those people who accept that, to get the investment needed if the water industry is to produce the best quality water, additional capital will have to come in and the public will have to pay for that service.

People naively think that the water industry is simple, but it is not. There is a lot of work between the heavens and the tap to ensure that people have no cause for complaint.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be sympathetic to the idea that the information is exactly the sort that could be well used and well distributed. The amendment seems to be straightforward, especially when judged by the tests already established.

The European Community has established standards, and it is a collective sadness that we in Britain do not achieve them. Targets on drinking water quality were set for us to meet by 1985; we have failed to comply with them. As regards drinking water quality, we are the most persistent offender in matters pursued by the European Commission and taken through the legislative process. There is still a long way to go.

A few weeks ago, I and my colleagues produced a report. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary saw it. It was called, "The Water We Drink." Based on the only figures produced by the inspectorate last year, by doing a simple mathematical multiplication, taking each water zone and the levels of excess chemicals or materials in the water in it—for example, lead or nitrates—we worked out the number of people who were potentially affected in all those zones by pollution in water. It amounted to more than 10 million users.

One cannot say that those figures were accurate in detail. They cannot be. One would have to study each zone. The water companies have to record where there is a breach on a certain component of the water in a zone. Therefore, one can only establish how many zones there are in a water authority area, how many people live in each zone and thus how many people are potentially affected.

The water industry was resistant to and critical of that form of calculation. No doubt I shall discuss that with the industry at my next meeting and I am happy to do so. None the less it is a valid argument that, judging from the drinking water inspectorate's evidence and report, and from the water industry's own methodology, many people in this country are at risk because they are drinking water which, when tested, shows a higher incidence of harmful components than is allowed in legislation agreed by us in the European Community.

The water authorities' methodology for testing water can be disputed. Some of us believe that they do not test sufficiently comprehensively to ensure that quality characteristics are adequately presented. We can debate that in the context of the water industry, but the simple proposition in the amendment is that, when one bills customers, one should tell them how good the quality of their water is.

There is no doubt that the quality of air and water is increasingly of concern to the public throughout the country. That is a characteristic of an advanced society. We expect better quality air and water now than we did 30, 50 or 100 years ago. We have the technology to quantify and judge quality and we are able to tell the customer. If we believe in open government and in the citizens charter, we must accept that citizens need information. Citizens should be the arbiters of the performance of public services, whether in public or private hands, and of the monopoly suppliers. Often water can be supplied only by a monopoly supplier, even though in the private sector.

I support the amendments in the group. Such information should be included on bills. Although the usual formula will probably be used and the Under-Secretary will probably say that there is some technical flaw in drafting the amendment so that he cannot accept the amendment tonight, I hope that he will accept the principle behind it, and that before the Bill goes on to the statute book, we can ensure that the public can find out what is going on—from information put through their letter boxes, rather than having to go to the library or to the offices of the water companies.

Recently an interesting experiment was carried out when some journalists went with the drinking water inspectorate to Severn-Trent water authority to find out what processes were carried out. One is allowed to go and demand certain information and look up the records.I think that I am right in saying that they found—irrespective of the water quality result—that the public are not availing themselves of the right to go and look for the information. That is not surprising when the place where one might have to go may be miles from where one lives.

I send my water account from south London to Swindon because that is where the Thames Water billing office happens to be. I have never inquired whether I would have to go to Swindon to discover facts and figures about the quality of Thames water. If so, I would rarely make that journey, unless I could get off at that station on my way to somewhere else. It would be much simpler for the public to be given the information through their letter boxes by the supplier than for them to go hunting for it. I hope that the Minister will be positive and that we can make this progressive, though modest, Bill better as a result.

Mr. Baldry

We had a fair concession this evening from the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). We will have to look with care at its exact formulation in Hansard, but I think that I heard him agree that we in Britain probably have the best quality water in Europe. I think that that is what I heard him say, but I shall wish to check it in Hansard tomorrow. If he did say so, that would be an honourable statement on his part. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was wrong in asserting that Britain is among the worst offenders within the European Community. It is among the top four countries in compliance with European Community directives.

9 pm

Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Bridgend spoiled a fair concession by repeating the litany of disaster that we heard in Committee. He managed to condense it today into 27 minutes; I think that it took an hour and a half in Committee, when he went through everything, including blue-green algae, which he did not mention today.

If hon. Members keep talking down the industry, it causes people to be apprehensive about drinking tap water which has to go through 57 tests, and causes them to drink more mineral water which they have to buy in supermarkets. The irony is that that product has to go through fewer tests.

I hope that we can all agree that the drinking water inspectorate undertakes a rigorous number of tests. In 1990, there were 3.3 million tests, 99 per cent. of which were within the legal standards.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister has touched on two points which perhaps he can amplify. First, does he accept that the drinking water inspectorate is insufficiently staffed to do its job properly? I think that it has 19 staff who go once a year to each water authority. Secondly, the Minister made the valid point that there is far less regulation of the mineral water industry than of tap water. Does he accept that the Government should consider that, and that the customer is entitled to the same control of bottled water, which is often grandiosely described, as of tap water, as was amply demonstrated by a recent television programme?

Mr. Baldry

On the first point, the drinking water inspectorate carried out 33 million tests during 1990.

Mr. Win Griffiths

We need clarification on that point. It is not the inspectorate which carries out the tests, but the water companies themselves. A very small number of those tests are checked by the inspectorate.

Mr. Baldry

Of the 3.3 million tests carried out on drinking water during 1990, 99 per cent. were within the legal standards. The drinking water inspectorate undertakes an exercise which ensures that those tests are carried out properly and fully. A total of 3.3 million tests seems to be a substantial number. Of course, the drinking water inspectorate is a good regulatory authority which we have introduced, just as we established the National Rivers Authority and the Director General of Water Services.

The inspectorate is adequately staffed to carry out its functions. Its first year report is testimony to its ability to discharge its responsibilities. The chief inspector concluded that water supplied to consumers is of a high quality, and is often of an exceptionally high quality. I think that is evidenced by the facts.

As to water sold in shops, consumers must draw their own conclusions. My point is that it is ironic that, by talking down the quality of our drinking water, some Opposition Members are scaring people into drinking water which may not have been tested to such rigorous standards.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 10 show that there is misunderstanding about the involvement of the various regulators in the industry. We may have so many regulators that it is difficult for the Opposition to keep up with them in their determination that the interests of consumers and the public are protected.

The director general does not have a direct interest in the quality of water supplied, though he obtains information on remedial action that undertakers have in place. Should he become aware of anything not already being pursued by the National Rivers Authority or the drinking water inspectorate, he would bring it to their attention. It is appropriate for the National Rivers Authority and the drinking water inspectorate to collect and publish information, as they have the overall picture. So amendments Nos. 6 and 10 would duplicate work already being done quickly and properly by other regulators.

As for the remaining amendments, the requirement for water undertakers to provide information on water quality would increase the costs of administering the billing system, but would not make available any new information to consumers. Water undertakers are already required by the water quality regulations to maintain a record of drinking water quality, which includes details of all water quality samples taken in accordance with the regulations.

They are also required to inform each customer at least once a year that records of water quality may be inspected by the public free of charge, giving the address, telephone number and hours of opening of at least one of the offices at which such inspection may be made. That information is provided with each customer's water bill. So it would be burdensome to require sewerage undertakers to provide information on sewage discharges. Likewise, the National Rivers Authority is responsible for setting standards on discharges from sewerage works in line with European Community standards, where appropriate, and enforcing compliance with those standards.

Under the Act, the Government have made available to customers far more information about water quality than ever before. One of the central tenets of everything that we have done is that there should be the maximum openness, with the maximum information being made available to consumers on environmental matters. I believe that the present arrangements are sufficient to ensure that consumers are properly informed about the quality of their water and of sewage discharges. The amendments would simply add to the costs—which, in due course, would have to be reflected in bills to consumers—without giving consumers any extra information or advice.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I am disappointed with the Under-Secretary's reply, since we are asking simply for a logical conclusion to everything about which the Government are trumpeting on the availability of information. Like all hon. Members, the Minister knows that probably fewer than 1 per cent. of customers would be likely to visit water company offices to check the details for themselves. Like him, I do not have an estimate of the cost of our proposal, but I am sure that it would not be prohibitive as part of water company costs. Indeed, I believe it to be a cost that the consumer would be prepared to pay.

Information is available because, generally speaking, the press covers pollution incidents when they occur. The Minister must accept that hardly a week goes by without a serious incident being reported. There has been evidence that water companies have tried to get away with it in the past. The Camelford incident was the most notorious in pre-privatisation days, but, even post-privatisation, companies have faced the dilemma of whether an incident is serious enough to warrant the issue of a warning to customers, and in one incident in north-west London, when the company decided belatedly to warn consumers to boil their water, there is evidence that some people suffered ill health because they drank water before the warning was issued.

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that putting information on customers' bills would not deal with the type of incident to which he has just referred. Whether a water company should advise consumers about an incident as it occurs may or may not require to be done immediately. But they will need advice, if at all, before the next quarterly bill is issued.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I do not dispute that. I am simply pointing out that water companies have not always been anxious that their customers should know about these things. If, once a year, there were enclosed with the bill a note giving details of water quality and of the standard of the sewerage service, it could do no harm.

Question put and negatived.

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