§ 3. Mr. Nicholls
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the relative level of water charges in the south-west.
§ The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Tim Yeo)
Water prices are a matter for the Director General of Water Services. However, the Government are aware that South West Water's charges for water and sewerage are among the highest in the country, and have been in discussion with the company and others about ways in which prices can be restrained.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Will he acknowledge the real feelings of outrage that I, with other west country Conservative Members, have been expressing for the past three years about the level of water charges? Will he give an assurance that he will continue his 1024 efforts—particularly in any European context—to ensure that the burdens imposed on west country people are not greater than those people can bear?
§ Mr. Yeo
I am happy to give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance to that effect. I have been deeply impressed by his long-standing, determined and realistic approach to minimising the costs of providing consumers throughout the south-west with higher water standards. He and other Conservative Members from the west country were making a constructive contribution to this debate long before the Liberal party jumped on the bandwagon. I only regret that their realism is not shared by the Liberal party. I am, however, glad to be able to assure the right hon. Member for Berwick upon Tweed (Mr. Beith)—who, unfortunately, is not present—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State resisted the demand made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), at a recent meeting at the Department of the Environment, for the costs of improving water around the south-western coast to be borne by constituents in Berwick upon Tweed.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
Will the Minister confirm comments made by the Secretary of State at a private meeting with the Liberal Democrats in the past week that he is considering ending the present extremely unfair water rate system and replacing it with another means of payment possibly, as we have suggested, based on the council tax? If so, will that system include discounts for those living alone and those on low incomes as we have proposed?
§ Mr. Yeo
It is a pity that the privacy of the meeting was not recognised by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, who immediately spoke to the press. The account that they gave to the press was inaccurate in almost every particular. While my right hon. Friend said that he would examine any possibility, he gave no assurance of the sort that has been described. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are converting hypocrisy into an art form. The stench that the issue is causing is wafting beyond the Chamber to the homes of people throughout the south-west. First, the Liberal Democrats proclaimed a commitment to cutting green house gases and followed it with an absolute refusal to support any measure designed to achieve that. Now, even more fragrantly, they are demanding cleaner water and lower prices in the same breath.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I shall seek a further opportunity to raise the issue.