HC Deb 07 December 1994 vol 251 cc306-8
11. Mr. Worthington

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how he will require the new water authorities to take into account the ability of consumers to pay.

Mr. Stewart

Methods of charging for water and sewerage services will be a matter for the new authorities. Their charges schemes will need to be approved by the Customers Council or, failing that, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Worthington

That is simply not good enough. At present, ability to pay is taken into account by reference to reduced council taxes and the size of people's houses. In England and Wales, by Government diktat, it is not possible to take council tax information into account in setting charge levels. Unless the new water authorities are given access to such information, they will not be able to take ability to pay into account. That will mean that the water charges of the lowest-paid workers—the worst off in the country—will double. What will the Secretary of State do to prevent that from happening?

Mr. Stewart

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that subject. Where the new councils are required to collect household charges in Scotland, as is proposed in the first year, the arrangements will mirror those for council tax, including the single-person discount. I believe that that makes practical and administrative sense and will ensure an easy and efficient form of collection, and I am glad to be able to reassure not only the hon. Gentleman but the whole House on that important point.

Mr. Graham

Is the Secretary of State aware of a recent university research study that shows that Inverclyde has one of the worst poverty rates and is one of the worst deprivation areas? Will he ensure that none of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and myself is cut off from the life-giving supply of water or the ability to clean with water?

Mr. Stewart

I can make it absolutely clear yet again to the House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, has made clear, that water and sewerage authorities in Scotland have no power to disconnect water supplies because of non-payment. The new legislation, which has been passed by the House, affirms that position in relation to the new water and sewerage authorities.

Mr. Gallie

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in the past 30 years, Strathclyde regional council has failed to supply my constituents in Ayr with adequate sewerage facilities? If, at this late stage, the council proposes new capital schemes, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that those schemes are called in by the Scottish Office pending the taking over of the water authorities by the new water and sewerage boards?

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend anticipates the answer to his question No. 20, and he will receive that in writing later this afternoon. I say to him at this stage that, first, I entirely appreciate his anxiety on that issue, which I think is absolutely genuine. However, it is, in the first instance, for Kyle and Carrick district council, as planning authority, to determine Strathclyde regional council's application.

Mr. George Robertson

Is the Minister aware that his refusal to guarantee that Scottish water bills will not climb to the astronomic levels being experienced in England and Wales is a revealing giveaway of the real agenda involved in quangoising Scotland's water? Given that the Chancellor has not yet said how he will fill the humiliating hole in his finances caused by the Government's defeat last night on VAT on fuel, and given that the Prime Minister himself would not rule out, in a letter to me in June, the possibility of putting VAT on water bills, will the Minister, this afternoon, give an absolute guarantee that VAT will not be put on Scottish water bills—or will that be yet another of the new Tory taxes from which we are already suffering?

Mr. Stewart

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have made clear on many occasions, that, as a result of the need for new investment in water and sewerage—which was widely recognised as necessary—in Scotland water bills will have to increase.

In general terms, however, I must say to the hon. Gentleman, in relation to the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, that he told the public that the Bill would be stopped because he was the master of the Maastricht rebels; he was wrong in that. He said that the Bill would not get through; he was wrong about that. He said that implementation of the Bill would be delayed; he was wrong about that.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong again. In fact, the only difference between the hon. Gentleman and the grand old Duke of York is that the grand old Duke of York led his men up to the top of the hill before marching them down. The hon. Gentleman could not get his team half way up the hill before they slipped down.