HC Deb 22 November 1995 vol 267 cc593-616

11 am

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

There is a great deal of interest in this subject—as we can see from the number of hon. Members who are present in the Chamber for the debate. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) wished to be present for the debate, but they are meeting the Secretary of State for the Environment on another issue.

I requested a debate on the crisis facing the people of West Yorkshire months ago when the privatised Yorkshire Water company first proposed standpipes and later sought Government approval to implement 24-hour rota cuts. I can tell the House about the level of anger in Halifax and in other affected areas about the actions of Yorkshire Water. The public anger is unprecedented: I have not seen the like of it since the introduction of the poll tax.

People detest the way in which Yorkshire Water has conducted its business and the way in which it has blamed its customers for the current crisis. Customers are lectured time and again, as if the present situation has nothing to do with the company. This week the Government have been asked to give Yorkshire Water the authority to impose rota cuts and I ask the Minister not to give that permission. In my speech, I shall outline the implications for both my constituents and the local economy if permission were granted and the cuts went ahead.

My position on the issue of rota cuts is absolutely clear, and I believe that is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I believe that the consequences of the 24-hour rota cuts would be so severe as to make the idea completely unacceptable. Whatever it takes and whatever it costs, the water must continue to come out of customers' taps. I think that the Government have a clear duty to ensure that that occurs.

I shall now turn to the record of Yorkshire Water since privatisation, as its abysmal mismanagement of that vital industry has led to the current crisis. We have lived through an exceptional drought; no one denies that. However, last winter was one of the wettest on record and in early spring our reservoirs were full.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most obvious causes of concern in Yorkshire is the ludicrous mismanagement of the industry by Yorkshire Water? Throughout the summer, in Calderdale and in nearby Kirklees Yorkshire Water threatened complete cut-offs, while in the immediately adjacent areas of Wakefield and Leeds people were allowed to use hosepipes until a month ago. Does my hon. Friend accept that Yorkshire Water's biggest failure is that it has not yet established the most basic, commonsense elements of the grid system? Will she press the Minister on that issue to ensure that the Government introduce a grid system, as that is surely the answer to Yorkshire's present problems?

Mrs. Mahon

My hon. Friend's comments have exposed the inadequacy of Yorkshire Water's management of the industry. I fully support his comments and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

Upon privatisation, the water industry benefited from a debt write-off of £5 billion, a green dowry of £1.5 billion and a share underpricing of £873 million—in fact, there was the usual privatisation fix to assist the Government's friends in the City. Since privatisation, the bills to customers have increased by more than twice the rate of inflation. The people having to meet those exorbitant increases have paid for improved standards of quality that were imposed by the European Union and not by the shareholders or by the bosses of Yorkshire Water, who have simply filled their pockets. In June this year Yorkshire Water announced record profits of £161 million. Only £11 million was set aside for the repair of leaks, while the company chairman, Sir Gordon Jones, gave himself a 169 per cent. increase on his salary of £190,000.

Yorkshire Water also borrowed £50 million. However, it spent the money not on its core industry, but on speculative business ventures in China and in Europe. If some of that money had been spent on leaks and on maintenance, we might not be facing the current crisis. Months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) produced the figures to show that Yorkshire Water is top of the national league for wasting water supplies. Some 103 million gallons—or one third of the total supply—is lost every day through leakage. That is an absolutely disgraceful record.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said—especially as I suffer the double whammy of living in Halifax while representing Huddersfield. Do not the Government also have a responsibility for the current situation? They knew that there had been a hosepipe ban in Yorkshire for five out of seven years and that if there was a drought, there would be trouble. Where was the Government's strategic long-term view? Throughout the summer Ministers simply ran around like headless chickens trying to make it appear as though they were doing something constructive.

Mrs. Mahon

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. Since privatisation in 1992, Yorkshire Water's investment in repair and maintenance has fallen by £44.8 million-26 per cent—while demand has increased. As my hon. Friend said, that information was available to the Government but they failed to act upon it.

I have also discovered that the company does not employ people from the Halifax area to repair bursts or to make new connections: there is no direct labour force. The work is "outsourced"—that is privatisation-speak—or contracted out to small contractors such as O'Donnells of Bradford on a strictly cash-limited budget. Prior to the crisis, all repair work on leaks was stopped unless a major burst occurred. In my village of Northowram, water was allowed to cascade down a steep hill for months and repairs were not made until the conditions became so dangerous that one could almost skate on the resulting ice. I understand that Kirklees and Bradford also operate with no direct work force.

Yorkshire Water has a leakage detection team that marks were leaks occur so that private firms can repair them. But sometimes repair work is not undertaken for weeks or months—if at all. Those private firms are not accountable to anyone, as Yorkshire Water is more interested in making money than in repairing leaks. I have also been informed that it had planned to implement a scheme called Operation 2000 in October, which would have abolished the leakage detection teams altogether. However, because of the present outcry, its abolition has been put back to January 1996. Will the Minister inform us about that proposed abolition?

Night-time waste detection teams were disbanded two years ago and Yorkshire Water now accepts that 25 per cent. is an acceptable level of leakage. Headwork teams, comprising men who dig conduits to channel water into the reservoirs and keep the silt out, have been steadily disbanded. Water is allowed to form bogs and small lakes around the reservoirs instead of being channelled into them. Silt continues to filter into the reservoirs. I have visited the reservoirs with experts, and in some areas we have seen silt up to 100 ft deep. Had that silt been cleaned out, there would have been greater capacity and, therefore, more water.

Since privatisation, the reservoir keeper has become responsible for more reservoirs, but he does not have the same number of workers as before. Two years ago, Yorkshire Water seriously considered replacing its dwindling band of skilled water workers with Securicor. Can Members imagine anything more ludicrous? That is the level of neglect that privatised industry has imposed on a vital, life-giving resource.

When the current crisis is over, Yorkshire Water's greedy and incompetent managers should be exposed to detailed public scrutiny. Never again should they be allowed to bring the health and well-being of the people and the economy of West Yorkshire to the brink of disaster. We all know that they ptit profit before service and that will not do. They are not fit to be in charge and those responsible must go.

I turn now to the people who will be affected by 24-hour cuts. Since the beginning of the crisis I have received many representations from the public, industry, local businesses, schools, national health service professionals, nursing homes, council offices, the fire service, charities, local pensioner groups and many others.

Mid Yorkshire chamber of commerce said last week in its objection to the tribunal considering the application for the emergency drought order: The major effect that rota cuts will have is the considerable disruption to production flow. All firms have contracts which must be met and loss of production for 24 hour periods will severely hinder a firm's ability to meet deadlines.". It also wrote to me saying: At no time during the development of the drought did Yorkshire Water contact the Chamber. It was the Chamber which contacted Yorkshire Water at the beginning of September to ask for hard information and offered to assist in bringing about awareness through its membership of around 2,500 firms from industry and business. It had to take the initiative.

The West Yorkshire fire service objected to the drought order through the local evening paper, the Halifax Evening Courier, which, along with other media, including the Yorkshire Post and Radio Leeds, has sustained an excellent campaign throughout the crisis and kept the public informed. The local authority's chief fire officer said: Fire fighting in Calderdale would be seriously compromised if rota cuts go ahead. Mr. Jim Manuel, West Yorkshire's most senior fire officer, told the drought hearing: 'A fire in a large multi-storey building, we would be incapable of controlling under those circumstances.' Yorkshire Water had said they could turn the mains back on within one or two hours, said Mr. Manuel. 'I think that would be largely academic'. That is an example of Yorkshire Water's response. Old mill buildings, which are common in West Yorkshire, could present a serious hazard.

Holdsworth and Company is a local textiles firm that has tried its best to conserve water. I took my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to visit that reputable local firm. Holdsworth and Company warned that if it had to close and fell behind with production, vital exports could be lost and once lost could be gone for ever.

The Confederation of British Wool Textiles said that if water cuts became fully operational, there might be lay-offs of up to 3,000 people in Calderdale and Kirklees.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds wrote me a very witty letter saying that if the crisis were not so serious, it could have been taken from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. We have the tankers commandeered from chocolate makers and chemical companies to fill up in Northumbrian reservoirs. More seriously, it said: We have the rivers Wharfe and Ouse being drained—placing fish, birds and other wildlife in jeopardy. This is a prime example of the environment paying the price for poor management of water resources. I could not agree more. Guy Cocker of the local dental services committee told the inquiry: Dentists operate on living tissue and as any surgeon have to scrub wash their hands between each patient. It would be difficult to see how this could be done if water is not of the highest quality and free of bacterial infestation. It may well be that General Dentist Practitioners have to close their surgeries. Calderdale Nursing Homes Association felt the same as nursing homes were not exempt, as hospitals and police stations were. It said: We care for most vulnerable and frail members of society. Many are very ill, doubly incontinent and unable to resist infection. Lives will be at risk without an adequate water supply. Recognising the severity of the crisis, I wrote to the Prime Minister on 17 August asking Parliament to intervene and for the Government to recall Parliament. I received only a holding letter. I wrote again on 18 September and on 22 September drawing attention to lead articles in the Evening Courier and the Yorkshire Post. I sent the Prime Minister all the information. I also wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I finally received a reply from the Prime Minister on 26 September. What a disappointment it was after waiting almost six weeks. He said: The five months April to August were the driest five months for over 200 years. It is unrealistic for water companies to plan, invest and increase charges to customers to cater for all demands through such a rare event. I do not agree. Water companies have responsibilities.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Was not that disappointing response from the Prime Minister compounded by the response from the Secretary of State for the Environment in the summer, when he told people to stop whingeing and enjoy the weather? He did not care about the people of West Yorkshire.

Mrs. Mahon

That was the usual insult from the Secretary of State for the Environment instead of a helpful suggestion. The Prime Minister's letter continued: I understand that although reservoirs which supply Bradford and Halifax areas were at full capacity at the beginning of the summer season, they did not have the usual topping-up from run-off due to the exceptionally dry weather since April. Overall the privatisation of the water industry has been an outstanding success.". It did not matter to him what my constituents felt.

Last winter was one of the wettest on record. I would have found the Prime Minister's comments about the exceptionally dry weather farcical were we not facing such a serious crisis. What does he think happens in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? People plan ahead.

Last week, the right hon. Gentleman compounded farce with insult when he replied to my intervention during the debate on the Queen's Speech by saying: In addition to everything else, the Opposition have a policy to make it rain when it is convenient."—[Official Report, 15 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 27.]

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Yorkshire Water's planning has consisted of closing reservoirs and seeking planning permission to build on those sites?

Mrs. Mahon

That is well documented and well known to people in West Yorkshire.

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration insisted that the Government could not intervene, yet they do in other matters. In response to a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for the Army to be brought in, he said that help in distributing water by the military was impossible because the Army water tankers were busy in Bosnia. He was not concerned about the people of West Yorkshire.

The tankers have come to the rescue, but do Members have any idea of the disruption to the lives of people living round the Albert reservoir in Halifax? I took my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to see it. Yorkshire Water is paying compensation to people who live nearby.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not the case that the whole tankering operation is moving 13.5 million gallons a day while 100 million gallons a day are leaking away? Could not the whole crisis have been avoided?

Mrs. Mahon

Such a test could have been set in a primary school. There are 250 tankers a day operating in Calderdale, and that figure will increase to 600 as other parts of West Yorkshire are hit by the drought. The constant noise and pollution caused by those lorries as they drive past every day are seriously disrupting people's lives.

I pay tribute to the three local councils involved and particularly to Calderdale's leader, Councillor Pam Warhurst, Councillor Paul Wyatt, who lives in the area where the tankering is in operation, chief executive Michael Ellison and Mr. Paul Steed, principal planning officer, who have all planned for the crisis. While the Prime Minister and Whitehall completely ignored the growing crisis, others were trying to do something. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would have ignored me for six weeks if the affected area had been Huntingdon or the home counties. In no way is the north-south divide better illustrated.

The council has already delivered 1 million litres of bottled water to schools and nursing homes, at the cost of a great deal of time and money. I hope that it will be fully recompensed. When the inquiry opened last week in Dewsbury, Yorkshire Water announced a £2 million compensation package for customers who might be hit by the cut-offs—£2 per week for each property and £15 every fortnight for the inconvenience. There will be nothing for industry, and that is not good enough. One cannot put a price on people's health or jobs.

Why did not Yorkshire Water have a long-term strategy or listen to Diana Scott, who was doing such a superb job of warning of all the folly and neglect? She was doing her job properly, but got sacked for it. Where has Ian Byatt been until recently? Why is that man paid all the money that he is? The Government have washed their hands of 600,000 people in West Yorkshire.

Yorkshire Water's long-term strategy has been to pray for rain. The way that it has insulted customers is diabolical. It makes a mockery of the term privatised business when Yorkshire Water has spent months exhorting customers not to use its product.

The tankering operation is costing £3 million a week. Imagine if that money had been spent earlier on repairs and a decent strategy. Why do the Government think that the crisis is not of their doing, when they are the guilty men and women who handed over a precious asset to a private company? The Minister said that Army tankers are not available, but that is not good enough. Pipelines can be installed in days when there is a war—we saw the most amazing logistics and operations during the Falklands and Gulf wars. Why is it thought that the people of West Yorkshire are less important than the people of Kuwait or of the Falkland Islands? Yorkshire Water did no planning until it looked into the abyss and saw the future—and only then because the company realised that cut-offs could cause it to go bankrupt.

I call on the Government to take over Yorkshire Water and to promise that customers will not have to pay for the company's folly. I ask the Government to put every resource necessary into ensuring that the people of Calderdale and Kirklees will not have their water cut off and to refuse any request to do that. There must be a full and frank public inquiry into why almost 600,000 people have had to experience threats and intimidation from a company in a first-world country, and who may now have to face the kind of hardships that confront people in third-world countries. It is time for Yorkshire Water to go and for the Government to take on the company's responsibilities.

11.23 am
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

It is important to debate this subject this morning. I also submitted an application for an Adjournment debate this week, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on her success in the ballot. In recent months, this issue has not been wholly party political, which is a good thing. All Members of Parliament for Yorkshire have united in urging Yorkshire Water to take whatever steps are necessary, which is a positive aspect of the affair.

I regret that the hon. Lady has made the issue party political with her speech this morning. The crisis would be taking place whether the water industry was in the private or the public sector. I have press cuttings from 1976, when Labour was in government, reporting on standpipes going up in Holmfirth. People in my constituency were being threatened with cut-offs at that time.

It is only fair to acknowledge the significant shortage of rain in recent months. I am not for a moment apologising for Yorkshire Water, and I will say some rough things about it in a moment. I was interested to note that one of the 1976 press cuttings reported that water charges might increase by 25 per cent. the following year to pay for combating the crisis. Now that the industry is in the private sector, I expect to see the company's shareholders—not its customers—pay for the measures that Yorkshire Water has had to take.

If Yorkshire Water had been in the public sector, I have no doubt that Labour would be saying that the crisis was all the Government's fault because they had not invested sufficiently in the water infrastructure. If Labour had been in government, Conservative Members would probably have said exactly the same. As the industry is in the private sector, we can stand back and be rather more objective than might otherwise have been the case.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to learn that, in 1976, I would have been one of his constituents, so I know what he is talking about. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1976, Yorkshire Water—free of any payment or levy—was able to take water from the North West, Northumberland and Severn Trent utilities? Today, the company must buy that water. That is the difference.

Mr. Riddick

Yorkshire Water is taking as much water as it can from Northumberland and the north-east now, so nothing has changed.

We can all agree that Yorkshire Water's customers among our constituents should be asked to save water. Despite the company's statement on Monday that there will be no need to introduce rota cuts before the new year, we are not yet out of the woods. It is important that the public continue to save water wherever they can. I know that my constituents are doing that, and I am sure that people throughout West Yorkshire are doing so. That should continue.

I believe, like the hon. Member for Halifax, that it is wholly intolerable in this day and age that my constituents should be faced with the possibility of having their water supply cut off 24 hours at a time. That is an appalling prospect for domestic householders and it would create extreme difficulties for pensioners, who rely in most cases on central heating to keep warm, and for parents of young families. It would also be disastrous for industry.

The textile industry became established in West Yorkshire mainly because of the ready and plentiful supply of water. The Confederation of British Wool Textiles estimates that 3,000 workers in the industry would have to be laid off if rota cuts became fully operational throughout Kirklees and Calderdale. There are a total of 50,000 jobs in Kirklees in manufacturing, textiles, engineering, chemicals and food production—all of which are major water users. If rota cuts were introduced, thousands of local people would be laid off, which would be wholly unacceptable, and many small companies would go out of business. Water cut-offs would be a real shocker for the local economy, and they must not be allowed to occur. Their effects on the ability of fire fighters to do their job would be disastrous, and hospitals, dentists, old people's homes and schools would also be seriously affected.

The hon. Member for Halifax was not the only person to express her concern early on. In August, before the problem became really serious and only four months into the drought, I said that this year's problem showed a lack of sufficient storage capacity. In his chairman's statement of 1990, the chairman of Yorkshire Water plc said: During the year we faced another challenge as Yorkshire experienced one of its worst droughts this century. In the Huddersfield Daily Examiner of September 1994, Yorkshire Water's general manager in charge of water supply was quoted as saying: In the exceptional circumstances of a very dry summer and an unprecedented high demand we had no option except to take the steps we did", which were applying for drought orders.

Clearly there is a continuing problem. The fact that we have had hosepipe bans in five of the past seven years is confirmation of that. West Yorkshire has insufficient storage capacity for water. Yorkshire Water has complained about increasing demand on the part of customers. Most companies welcome increased demand from their customers, and Yorkshire Water should have been prepared for it. As industry emerged from the recession, it was only natural to expect companies to use more water. As householders' living standards rose, so consumption of water was also likely to increase. People buy dishwashers, which use a lot of water; they buy second-hand cars, which they want to wash. People also want to water their gardens, especially in hot, dry summers. Yorkshire Water should be in a position to respond to customers' increased demands.

I have no doubt that the company is fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and recognises that rota cuts would be wholly intolerable. I am also convinced that the Minister is fully aware of how serious matters are. I was delighted that he came up to West Yorkshire last week—I was pleased to see him even if the hon. Lady was not. We had a useful meeting in Brighouse, and he was able to see for himself the tankering operation at Scammonden. Judging by his comments, privately to us and also in public, he is clearly aware of the serious nature of the problems.

I would urge the Minister not to grant the drought order to Yorkshire Water. If he does not, the company will have to take whatever steps are necessary to maintain the water supply. At this point I will read an extract from a letter I have received from one of my constituents, who takes a hard line on this matter with which I fully agree. He is a solicitor working in Huddersfield and he writes as follows: If privatisation means anything it means that the supplier of the utility concerned must pay for its acts and defaults. If the order is not made and Yorkshire Water is unable to supply the people of Kirklees and Calderdale, the people of Kirklees and Calderdale will sue Yorkshire Water, which will be liable in damages. If by reason of that Yorkshire Water becomes insolvent, so be it. Yorkshire Water will be placed in liquidation, its assets sold to another undertaking and the proceeds of the sale will be available to satisfy the claims for damages from the citizens of Kirklees and Calderdale. I agree with my constituent, but I do not agree with the hon. Member for Halifax, who wants to allow civil servants to handle the crisis—that is not the answer. It seemed to be her solution, for she called on the Government to take over Yorkshire Water.

Back in August, I raised the issue of bringing in supplies of water from the Kielder reservoir. There is some confusion about this, but I believe there is scope to increase the supply from that source, and Yorkshire Water will need to examine that option both for the immediate future and for the longer term.

Another point about 24-hour rota cuts is that, in practice, many people will fill up their baths and basins with water in advance, and may thereby use more water than they would have without the cuts.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there had been a connecting grid between the Kielder reservoir and the Yorkshire and Humberside area, this crisis would not have occurred?

Mr. Riddick

Yes. I have talked to Yorkshire Water about that. The fact is that the company can get water from the Kielder reservoir into the Tyne and the Tees; it needs to build a pipe about 10 miles long from the Tees to the Swale, and thence to the Ouse so as to pipe it through to Leeds. Currently 90,000 tonnes of water are being transferred from the Ouse to the Leeds grid. A senior manager of Yorkshire Water told me yesterday that the company is looking for massive pumps to increase the rate of flow from the Ouse.

Once the immediate crisis has been overcome, Yorkshire Water must invest in a grid to ensure that water can be transferred between various parts of the county, and bring in water from outside the county when necessary. Water storage capacity needs to be increased to meet the demands of an increasingly prosperous society. That can probably be done by a combination of increasing yield from ground waters and industrial rivers, and possibly from new reservoirs and outside sources such as Kielder. Leaks should also be reduced in the short term, and Yorkshire Water must do whatever is necessary to maintain supplies.

The Government must not, however, grant the drought order because rota cuts would be wholly unacceptable in this day and age.

11.36 am
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

I found some of the comments that we have just heard amazing. I wonder where the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has been throughout this episode.

In the first week of August we in Bradford were told that, unless there was significant rainfall by the end of August, we would have standpipes. That idea fell by the wayside, though not because of rain. At the beginning of September we were told that, instead of standpipes, we were to have alternate 24-hour rota cuts. That resulted in an application for a drought order to the Secretary of State for the Environment, and a public inquiry was set up. For some reason, the application was withdrawn at the last minute and the public inquiry was cancelled. In the meantime, we have not had much rain.

Another difficulty lies with the statistics supplied by Yorkshire Water. If we calculate average daily use, the amount of water brought in by tanker and the amount of rainfall that we have had, the sums do not add up. I suspect that, all along, supplies in West Yorkshire have been between 10 and 15 per cent. higher than Yorkshire Water has admitted; otherwise Calderdale would have run out of water five weeks ago.

It seems that Yorkshire Water has no conception of what rota cuts would do to the economy. Their effects on householders and schools are obvious. Of the top 50 overseas-earnings companies in Yorkshire and Humberside, 13 are in Bradford, representing £1 billion of exports and 20,000 jobs. These companies are being told to shut down every other day. Let us consider companies operating in the food chain. They are being told to boil the water that they use on alternate days. Sunblest bakery is located in my constituency; it uses 500,000 gallons a day, making an awful lot of bread. The director asked me how he was supposed to boil that much water before using it. That bakery will be short until the rota cuts have finished. If they continue, every school kitchen will have to close, and every supermarket and small business will be at risk. Yorkshire Water has no conception of what has been going on.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Yorkshire Water wrote to the affected companies asking why they did not relocate during the crisis.

Mr. Rooney

That would be all very well if they could relocate in the Amazon rain forest.

Yorkshire Water has claimed that the problem lies with consumption and supply, but in fact it is a problem of distribution. Throughout the summer months—even according to Yorkshire Water's polluted figures—supply in the area did not fall below 45 per cent. The whole system is geared to a water supply in the Pennine areas, and pumping stations to pump it into the east; there is no facility for pumping it back. As a result, the east of the county was flooded with water while there was a shortage in the west.

In the first week of September, when Bradford was faced with the prospect of 24-hour cuts, Yorkshire Water was taking tankers to the racehorse trainers' gallops at Middleham and Malton—free of charge—and spraying water all over the place. The racehorses had to be protected, but the people of Bradford could have their water cut off every other day; that was fine. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of gallons were being delivered every day, free of charge. That is nonsensical.

Those who know the geography of the area will be aware that Bradford and Leeds are next to each other. In September, when the discussions were in progress, it was suggested that a pipe should be installed connecting the distribution system covering the area between Leeds and Sheffield with that of Bradford. The local authority offered manpower, and even offered to contribute to the cost, but Yorkshire Water would not entertain the idea, which would have obviated any need for rota cuts.

Since July, when Mr. Newton made his infamous claim not to have had a bath for three months—which turned out to be about as truthful as his supply statistics—Yorkshire Water appears to have been run by a public relations gentleman called Steve Painter. At the end of the day, Mr. Painter is a messenger boy, albeit a very good one. Unfortunately, like most messenger boys, he does not understand the message that he is conveying. The public are fed to the back teeth with being told that it is all their fault; they are fed up with being treated like idiots. It is time that Yorkshire Water put those who are in charge of the system up front, rather than the public relations people. It is time that it gave the public confidence in the water supply.

Towards the end of September, when Bradford was still under the threat of 24-hour rota cuts, an appalling fact came to light. Yorkshire Water had signed up to 61 commercial deals with Bradford companies, involving supplying them with water from Selby: they would have to pay for transport, but not for the water. No nursing home or person with a home dialysis machine could have a water supply, but a commercial concern that was willing to pay could have one. That sums up the difference between 1976 and 1995.

11.43 am
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I welcome the opportunity to speak about Yorkshire Water, and congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on obtaining the debate. I shall express my views on behalf of 77,500 constituents and their families; I also spoke on their behalf on Friday, when I attended a public inquiry.

It is a matter of public record that Yorkshire Water has spent millions of pounds on infrastructure. It has certainly spent a good deal in my constituency. Indeed, it has spent more than has been spent for centuries. Much more needs to be spent, however, particularly on leakage control. It is nonsensical that so much water is being lost every day when it is becoming such a precious commodity. I believe that every consumer in the Yorkshire Water area should benefit from water supplies at home and in hospitals, schools and businesses.

The situation is serious, and it should have been anticipated. We have not had the rain that we should have had. Certainly, neither my hon. Friend the Minister nor Yorkshire Water can make it rain—if they have tried, they have been using the wrong rain dance man—but Yorkshire Water should have started planning for the worst possible scenario early in the summer. If it had taken action at different stages, putting its plan into operation, we should not now be discussing the possibility of rota cuts.

Of course we must all save water: everyone has a responsibility to do that. I wonder, however, whether Yorkshire Water—or, perhaps, my hon. Friend the Minister—can tell me who owns the water that is in the full reservoirs at Whitley and Addingham, which I understand to be fairly full, and why it is not available in my part of Yorkshire.

It was not at all helpful of the managing director of Yorkshire Water to say on television that he had not had a bath for three months. When the media asked me to comment, I said that I would hate to sit next to him on a bus. We have spent years taking people out of houses that had no proper facilities such as running water, but now there is a possibility that we will allow Yorkshire Water to cut off the supply that we spent so much money and time installing. People in Batley and Spen want water—they are not too worried about compensation—and they want it delivered through their pipes rather than in bottles.

There is no shortage of water in the surrounding areas. It is absurd to say that there is a drought. It seems that everywhere in the country except our bit of Yorkshire has water; why cannot some of it be piped to us? What is Yorkshire Water doing about this?

Yorkshire Water has been running more than 200 tankers, and the number is to rise to 600. That is fine, but anyone driving up the M62 at any time of day or night will follow a constant stream of tankers. When they enter urban areas, people's lives become impossible: it is as if a rolling tank regiment were passing their doors continuously, day and night. Many people are being made ill; they and their children cannot sleep. Yorkshire Water must take the problem seriously. The tankers bring their own pollution, along with traffic congestion and noise.

Why can we not have a temporary pipeline? I am sick and tired of everyone telling me over the past few months what cannot be done; I want to hear what can be done. If our Army engineers were here, they might be able to install a temporary pipeline, but they are all in Bosnia. I believe that we in West Yorkshire are just as important as those who are suffering in Bosnia.

I am told that it would take between six and nine months to install a pipeline. Why? We sent our Army into disaster areas to lay pipes in difficult conditions and in a very short time. If all else fails, why do we not get Anneka Rice? She can do almost anything in 48 hours. Perhaps we should talk to her—or perhaps Yorkshire Water should do so.

We are told that we have part of a pipeline that goes from Kielder all the way down to Teesside, and I understand that there is a gap of about six and a half miles. If that gap were filled, the supply could be brought to Swaledale; once it arrived at Swaledale and the Ouse, we could all have water.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

As the hon. Lady knows, my constituency is not in Yorkshire but in Northumberland. I was very much involved in the development of the Kielder reservoir when I was a member of the water authority. Given her political beliefs and her faith in the free market, does the hon. Lady recognise that my constituents who are shareholders in Northumbrian Water will benefit, receiving an increased dividend? Some good is coming from the exercise, in Northumberland if not in Yorkshire.

Mrs. Peacock

The hon. Gentleman is correct; if someone has a commodity and someone else wants it, it has to be bought, and that is what Yorkshire Water will have to do. If that benefits shareholders in the hon. Gentleman's area, good luck to them. Yorkshire Water shareholders might not benefit so much, because I believe that they should foot the bill for whatever it takes to supply water to my constituency.

We have householders, many of whom are elderly, and we have schools, nursing homes, hospitals and local businesses. I am sure that the Minister has heard a lot from local businesses recently. In my constituency, Fox's Biscuits employs 2,200 people, and it could not make biscuits or enforce hygiene in the factory without water.

Earlier this week Nigel Worne, Fox's Biscuits managing director, said: We are the biggest private employer in Kirklees and Calderdale with 2,200 staff and the implications of having no water are enormous. Cutting it off for 24 hours at a time would be even worse because Yorkshire Water couldn't guarantee constant purity. We use 44,000 gallons of water a day. Of course Fox's Biscuits uses that much water; its biscuits are sold internationally—indeed, all over the world—as well as in all the best stores in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the company employs many people in my constituency, and I want that to continue.

I have had a great deal of contact with our textile companies, through the Confederation of British Wool Textiles. John Whitfield, of Thomas Carr Ltd., another large employer in my constituency, described the application for rota cuts as "a short-term, ill-considered decision" that would have "a long-term devastating effect" on local industry. Talking about three or four firms that provide another 1,000 jobs, he said: Closure of our firms will have an immediate knock-on effect on employment on both our raw material suppliers and carpet-producing customers. Thomas Carr Ltd. is another firm that sends 50 per cent. of its goods for export, and this is its busiest time of the year. If it does not complete its orders, it will lose not only those but future orders, because its customers will go elsewhere to buy.

As we have already heard, earlier in the summer Yorkshire Water suggested that some of the affected companies should relocate. What arrogant nonsense. What right has Yorkshire Water to tell companies in my constituency, or anywhere else in Yorkshire, to relocate? In my constituency alone there has been millions of pounds worth of investment over the past 10 years. It is downright arrogance to say, "Sorry, we can't let you have water. Would you mind gathering up your factory and taking it 10 miles up the road?" In fact, it is disgraceful.

I urge the Minister to ensure that, if necessary, the Government will lift planning restrictions so that a temporary pipeline can be laid. I have discussed the matter several times with my hon. Friend, and I know that he is sympathetic to what we are saying. If that is the way to get water into the area, so be it—and I understand that it is now being discussed.

May I also have the Minister's assurance that the recent public inquiry will not necessarily lead to rota cuts? Last week, the general view of the media in Yorkshire was that the inquiry was merely an exercise, that rota cuts were already on the cards and that the public inquiry was little more than a waste of time. Will my hon. Friend assure my constituents and me that that is not so, and that he will ensure that every possible source of water, however expensive it may be, is explored by Yorkshire Water, so that our householders, consumers and businesses can continue their activities over the next few weeks, when clearly things will be difficult?

I repeat that there is plenty of water around. Yorkshire Water must go out and buy it and get it into our areas, perhaps by using a pipeline.

11.53 am
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Earlier this month, a constituent of mine wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) saying: I write, as a disillusioned Tory, to thank you most sincerely for forcing Parliament to debate the serious mismanagement of collection and distribution of water in the Yorkshire area … The blame should be laid fairly and squarely on the present government. There never has been a better case for having a National Water Grid serving a Nationalised Water Board". I ask the Minister for three undertakings. First, I would like a clear assurance that the Government will require Yorkshire Water to take every possible action to avoid the interruption of water supplies in any part of Yorkshire in the foreseeable future.

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman assure me that the Government will not agree to any further drought order? I also ask for clarification as to whether the granting of a drought order automatically exempts Yorkshire Water from paying reasonable compensation. That is a grey area, and the Minister should clarify it this morning.

Finally, I ask for a clear undertaking that the Government will authorise a wholly independent inquiry soon, to examine several matters, especially Yorkshire Water's investment programme for repairing leaks.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the present proposal that such an inquiry be sponsored by Yorkshire Water is totally unsatisfactory? Is it not true that any inquiry must be completely and utterly independent of that company if it is to have any credibility for the people of Yorkshire?

Mr. Madden

I thoroughly agree. That is an absolute requirement. Moreover, there would be no confidence in any inquiry initiated by the water regulator, who is widely regarded as someone who would find it difficult to regulate his way out of a wet paper bag.

Such an inquiry should be able to investigate the ability to move water around within the region and between regions. It should also examine the closure of reservoirs that has taken place in Bradford and other parts of West Yorkshire—primarily, it would appear, to raise even more money for the shareholders of Yorkshire Water.

The inquiry should also examine the handling of the summer crisis, which, as the Minister has heard from both sides of the House, left much to be desired. Finally, it should inquire into Yorkshire Water's diversification into all sorts of business activities other than supplying water, not only in this country but around the world.

The most recent edition of Private Eye reports: Drought-stricken Yorkshire Water is using its newly-found customer relations skills to top up its profits. The company is holding a seminar for the PR industry on how to improve communication skills and handle the media. Appropriately the £35-a-head session ends with a lecture on 'crisis management'. I cannot conceive of any organisation less fit to advise others on crisis management than Yorkshire Water.

I hope that in replying to this important debate, the prospect of which I suspect persuaded Yorkshire Water not to embark on rota cuts anywhere, the Minister will make it clear that he will not tolerate that company's interrupting water supplies anywhere else in Yorkshire. I also hope that he will respond to my request for undertakings.

11.57 am
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

From what we heard earlier this week, it appears that because of recent rainfall, the immediate crisis has been postponed into the new year. However, no one knows what rain will come later this year, in the winter or even next summer, and the debate gives us an important opportunity to establish clearly what our priorities should be for the water industry in the future.

First and foremost, it must be clearly stated that water supply must be guaranteed, at whatever cost to the shareholders of any water company. Water must come to homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. Proposals to restrict the supply are unacceptable.

This is not a national crisis, because there is no national shortage of water. It is a local issue; water does not happen to have fallen in the places where the water companies traditionally predict that it will. The problem is therefore one involving the supply system rather than general drought conditions. It has been caused by the lack of a national grid and the lack of action to deal with leakage. These are the consequences of a century of under-investment in the water industry, and privatisation has for the first time brought large-scale investment into that industry. The problem we face is that, until now, investment has been focused on other important priorities such as improving water quality, dealing with sewage and improving the quality of rivers. Money has not been invested in the basic issue of guaranteeing the supply of water to consumers.

Weather patterns are very variable, and they are becoming increasingly unpredictable. We cannot rely on rain falling in the Pennines over the summer in a way that will guarantee water supplies to the homes that depend upon it, and Leeds is every bit as much at risk as Bradford, Halifax or any other area. We must ensure that a system is in place that will ensure water supplies to all, whatever the local conditions may be. Tankers are not the solution, as they cause havoc on the roads. Increased extraction from rivers has an enormous knock-on effect on wildlife, and we should be carefully monitoring that effect already.

Frankly, the priorities which have been established for the water industry need to be reassessed. Obviously, we want to improve the quality of our drinking water and the purity of water in our rivers, but first and foremost we must be able to deliver water to homes, schools, businesses and hospitals.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Batiste

I have only a short time, and I am sure that other hon. Members would like to speak. The hon. Lady has already intervened on two or three occasions.

Clearly, we need a grid system which will shift water from areas which have it to others which do not. Kielder in Northumberland may have water this year, but it may not next year, and Northumberland may be asking Yorkshire for water next year. A system must be in place that is able to provide that water.

Leakages must be addressed, and the neglect of the infrastructure in this century must be addressed quickly. Above all, it seems to me that Yorkshire Water is responding to the crisis in a way that is still reflective of a nationalised industry. The company is looking at the crisis on the basis of trying to control demand when it should be managing supply a great deal better. I hope the message that comes from this debate today is that, for hon. Members on both sides of the House, the people must come first and the supply of water must be guaranteed.

12.2 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I must start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on initiating this debate. More to the point, I should congratulate her on the campaign that she has waged against the shortcomings of Yorkshire Water and the way in which its incompetence continues to threaten the health and prosperity of people in Halifax, Calderdale, Bradford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Colne valley, Leeds and surrounding areas. Together with other Labour Members from Yorkshire, my hon. Friend has been relentless in speaking up for local people against the incompetence and profiteering of their privatised water company.

I should add my congratulations to those involved in newspapers, radio and television in Yorkshire, who have been stalwart campaigners on the matter. Despite the fact that they are run by a company that does not hide its light under a bushel—a company that is rightly described as Yorkshire Conservative newspapers—I should include in that my congratulations to the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post on their campaigns.

No one who has followed this debate—or, more to the point, what has been happening this summer and autumn—could possibly doubt that Yorkshire Water is failing the people of Yorkshire. Equally, no one can doubt that Yorkshire Water is profiteering at the expense of its customers and the taxpayer. One needs only to look at the figures. Since Yorkshire Water was privatised in 1989–90, household bills have gone up by more than two thirds, or 68 per cent. Profits have more than doubled, and are up by 144 per cent. The pay and perks of company bosses have nearly quadrupled, and are up by 288 per cent. The market value of the company has more than doubled—it is up by 165 per cent. Nice work if you can get it.

The company and the Government claim that investment has increased. It did at the beginning, but it has tailed off. In any case, most of that investment was financed directly by the taxpayer. When the water industry was privatised, the Government handed over to the new private owners £6.5 billion of the taxpayer's money. Out of that bonanza at the taxpayer's expense, Yorkshire Water got £648 million. In the first five years of privatisation, Yorkshire Water invested £700 million in water supply. As I have explained, £648 million of that came from the taxpayer, leaving only £52 million—or 7 per cent.—to be met by the company from its £721 million profit.

Since privatisation, Yorkshire Water has paid no mainstream corporation tax at all. It has paid just £50 million in tax in total, and that is mainly in the form of advanced corporation tax, which the company can write off against its future tax liabilities. In short, Yorkshire Water—like the rest of the privatised water companies—is coining it at the expense of its customers and the taxpayer. But this summer's performance shows that Yorkshire Water is not just coining it; it is incompetent into the bargain.

The company's attitude to the drought has lurched from abject complacency to total panic. To be fair to Yorkshire Water, the Government's response has been the same. The Government—in the face of all of the evidence—have gone on proclaiming that water privatisation is a "brilliant success". They have blamed any problems that the industry has faced on the awful water company customers who insist on having water. They have taken every opportunity to promote their hidden agenda of forcing everyone in the country to install water meters, despite the £4 billion to £5 billion that it would cost the country.

In pursuit of that unholy grail of water metering, Ministers—either deliberately or in total ignorance—have misled the House, and claimed in plain words that the customers have wasted more water than the water companies. They have patronised and insulted Labour Members who have challenged those misleading statements. That was why I published the full figures on leakages on 3 August, and published them for the first time in a form that people could understand. Would you believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the form in which the figures were published previously was in litres per household per day on the basis of a 20-hour day? That appears to be a covert effort to decimalise time.

The figures showed that the companies lost 826 million gallons of water a day, or 500,000 gallons a minute. Of the total water lost through leaks, 78 per cent. was leaked from company water pipes, leaving customers responsible for just 22 per cent.—precisely the reverse of what Ministers told the House. Yorkshire Water's record on leaks is the worst in the country. It wasted 103 million gallons a day from its own pipes. That accounts for 87 per cent. of the total leaked, while the careful customers of Yorkshire, as one would expect—I am a Yorkshireman myself—were responsible for leaking only 13 per cent. of the total.

The water that the company will lose from leaks today would meet all the water needs of Halifax and Calderdale for a fortnight. The water industry's response to the publication of the figures was to claim that we were exaggerating and that the companies were spending £4 billion on dealing with leaks. That simply was not true. I published the real figures, which showed that, far from investing £4 billion in dealing with leaks, the companies were investing about £66 million in identifying and dealing with leaks. Of that total, Yorkshire Water was investing £11 million.

The first response from the Government was a statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment, in which he said that he was very impressed with what the water companies had done. So were the people who were not getting any water. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that we should all stop moaning, and that Labour's condemnation of the leaks was "hot air".

Ten days later, the Secretary of State published a document which, in line with the Government's hidden agenda, promoted the idea of domestic water metering, and refused to set targets for cutting leaks by water companies. He also claimed—extraordinarily—that he had taken new powers in the Environment Act 1995 to promote the conservation of water. He conveniently omitted to explain that the Act placed that requirement not on the companies—as Labour proposed—but only on the customers.

The Secretary of State told people in Yorkshire that Yorkshire Water was a world-class company, and boasted that it was deploying its expertise in China and north America. Most people in Yorkshire did not share the right hon. Gentleman's thrill at that news. They took the view that the first duty of Yorkshire Water was to deploy its expertise—such as it is—in making sure that Yorkshire people get the water that they need and have paid for. Most people in Yorkshire do not like seeing their money going instead into speculative projects in China and north America, or, for that matter, into speculative shopping malls in Leeds. But that is what Yorkshire Water has been doing with its customers' money.

A week later, the Secretary of State changed his tune again and said that he might take action to require the water companies to cut their leaks, but he added that that would have to await the National Rivers Authority report on water conservation. Six weeks later, the NRA published its report, which vindicated everything that we had been saying. It said that reducing leaks was the most effective way of conserving water and that cutting leaks was twice as effective as installing water meters.

It is not just the experts who support what Labour has been saying. Throughout the country, people know that leaks are the main cause of the water shortage. They know that water companies are not doing enough to reduce the leaks. They know that compulsory water metering, which the Government support, would be an expensive racket at the expense of the customers. They also know and feel strongly that the water companies should never have been privatised in the first place.

Nowhere do people feel that more strongly than in Yorkshire. People have experienced hosepipe bans and drought orders. They have seen Yorkshire Water harming the environment by draining too much water out of precious lakes and rivers. They have seen Yorkshire Water forced to interrupt people's peaceful occupation of their homes and damage the environment by dispatching huge fleets of tankers all over the county. This is the county where one third of all water distributed leaks out of the company's pipes. This is the county where the water company continues to blame its customers for the shortages. This is the county where the water company officials have the cheek to suggest that local firms should shut down or relocate because they have the audacity to use too much water. This is the county where the company first promised to guarantee water supplies to residential homes for the elderly and then went back on its promise. This is the county where the company said that it needed drought orders, then that it did not—in the middle of the Tory party conference—and then that it did. Now it is not quite sure.

The company ignores its customers. As we have heard, it ignores the needs of local business. It ignores the views of the fire brigade. It ignores the views of the local authorities. All in all, the record of Yorkshire Water is a shambles and a disgrace. That shambles was created by the original privatisation of the water industry and the stupid and expensive way in which it was gone about at the expense of the taxpayers. It has been augmented since by Government complacency and the incompetence of the overpaid bosses of the company.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

If the hon. Gentleman checked the figures, I think he would find that in the period around 1976, when the industry was nationalised and accountable to the then Labour Government, investment levels were halved by the Labour Government. That must have had a major effect on the problem of bad pipes, rotting sewers and the leakage factor. If the investment had gone in under the Labour Government, we would not be in the mess that we are in now.

Mr. Dobson

Thank you, Mr. Rip Van Winkle. The Tory party nationalised the water industry, taking it out of the hands of the local authorities that had run it so well. No doubt the hon. Gentleman voted for that. Certainly, the Secretary of State voted to nationalise the water industry. They should know that when the water industry was nationalised, average investment per year under the Labour Government was a third higher than the average under the Tory Government. As the hon. Gentleman would have known if he had come into the debate, virtually all the investment since has been entirely at the expense of the taxpayers and drawn from the massive subsidy that the companies were given at the time of privatisation.

Yorkshire Water's insulting answer to the catalogue of lunacy that we have heard about today is to apply, God help us, for a charter mark and appoint a new public relations official on £80,000 a year. No wonder the people of Yorkshire are sick to death of what has been happening. No wonder they are turning in greater and greater numbers to the Labour party, the party of the Members of Parliament and councillors who have spoken up for local people and local businesses and have not proved to be apologists for Yorkshire Water.

Labour's representatives have told the truth. They have exposed the facts and suggested sensible answers to the problems. Conservatives have always defended the pay and perks of the water company bosses. Now they are even reduced to defending their leaks. I remind the House that leaks are running at half a million gallons a minute. That means that during this debate, 45 million gallons of water will have leaked out of the water pipes of the companies and 6.5 million gallons will have leaked out in Yorkshire alone.

The Secretary of State has sent the Minister along to defend the position. He is going to have a job because it is what the Tory party believes in—subsidised private monopolies ripping off the public.

12.14 pm
The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry)

The purpose of this debate should be to try to give some reassurance to the people of Yorkshire and to show them that we understand their deep concerns. I should be very happy to engage in party political warfare at any time at the hon. Gentleman's invitation, but the purpose now must be to get some facts before the people of Yorkshire.

I should like first to deal with what has already been done and then look a little towards the future. At the moment, some 35,000 tonnes of water is being tankered daily into Leeds, which is about 17.5 per cent. of demand; 20,000 tonnes of water is being tankered into Kirklees, which is about 18 per cent. of the demand; and 12,000 tonnes of water is going into Calderdale, which is 24 per cent. of the demand. Up to now, we have granted 20 drought orders, the most important of which have dealt with four categories of activity: first, reducing the flow of water from the reservoirs in the Pennines back into streams that were originally designed to boost the supply of water for the wool textile industry in Yorkshire in the 19th century; secondly, giving Yorkshire Water the authority to take water from the Ouse and the Wharfe; thirdly, enabling Yorkshire Water to tap special sources of water, such as ornamental reservoirs and water-skiing surfaces; and, fourthly, prohibiting non-essential uses.

Yesterday my Department approved an order to allow the use of borehole water and for the owners of the boreholes to sell or to give that water to other people. We have received—or, I imagine, will receive within the day—applications for two new drought orders. We have also received a demand to cut further the compensation flows from reservoirs. Some 28,000 tonnes flows from the reservoirs into the streams daily, which represents about 20 per cent. of the supplies to Kirklees and Calderdale, and the application is to reduce that flow.

We expect to receive an order—I believe that the advertisement has already been published in Yorkshire—for further extractions from the Wharfe to be made at Arthington to supply Leeds and at Lobwood in the Hollins for Bradford. We shall consider those orders as rapidly as we are permitted to do under the statute. We shall also, however, fully take into account our wide responsibilities when we consider those orders, including environmental considerations.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the question of the pipeline. I think that it would be helpful if I were to make a few remarks about that. Three questions have to be settled. First, the National Rivers Authority has some concern about the environmental effect of water from the Tees being added to the Swale and the Yorkshire water system. That is a legitimate concern and it clearly has to be decided. Secondly, in regard to the level of extraction at Moor Monkton, there is a problem of pumping capacity and the pipelines. One could argue that the most urgent need is for pipeline work on the link between Moor Monkton and Eccup and for the pumping facilities to be put in place. Thirdly, there is some concern about the level of pesticides in the water from the Ouse and the ability to treat it before it enters the drinking water system. That is again a legitimate environmental concern. If one were to act, with due risk, immediately, people would later ask, "But were the serious issues that were raised borne in mind?"

Mrs. Mahon

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry

No. I have not intervened on other people and I have very little time.

I must make it clear that I believe that Yorkshire Water must as a priority deal with the bottleneck at Moor Monkton. I believe that it has to continue work on the pipeline option, and I wish to make it absolutely clear that no planning problems will be allowed to stand in the way of the construction of that pipeline. We can authorise the construction through the use of drought orders, and we will not hesitate to do so.

On the purchase of water, I shall make one thing clear. When one water undertaker has to take water from resources controlled by another, it has always had to meet the reasonable costs. Under the privatisation arrangements, that system continues. If there is no agreement on the reasonableness of the cost, the Office of Water Services has to arbitrate.

I must inform the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), therefore, that I am moved by his concern for the shareholders of Northumbrian Water, but there might not be quite the bonanza that he anticipates on their behalf because of the requirement that the water should be sold at a reasonable cost. I certainly welcome the embracing of the capitalist ethic by at least that member of the Labour party, however.

The postponement of the earlier public hearing was due to a Government decision in the light of advice from the National Rivers Authority to allow those major abstractions from the Wharfe.

The public inquiry has just concluded and we have not yet received the inspector's report, but my advice is that we are likely to do so today. I wish to make it absolutely clear, as I have made it clear in Yorkshire and at a series of meetings with Yorkshire Water, that there is no question of the Government simply receiving the report, allowing a decent interval to pass and signing it through. Before he even contemplated the emergency drought orders, the Secretary of State would want to be convinced that they were the last of all possible last resorts and that the only alternative was to run out of water. I must emphasise that point because any impression that the inquiry was a mere formality to provide cover for a Government decision is not true. I have spelt that out categorically in those terms to Yorkshire Water as clearly as I am spelling it out in the House.

Let me spell this out clearly, too—in the present circumstances, that order will not be made. The measures already taken, particularly the reduction in compensation flows from reservoirs, even given below-average rainfall, will permit the reservoirs to fill. Until now, the problem has been the constant decline in reservoir levels and concern about the quality of the water that was left at the very bottom once they got to between 11, 12, 13 and 14 per cent. of capacity. The measures that have been taken should permit the reservoirs to fill. If we were to accede—I emphasise the conditional because we have to take the decision in the light of all our responsibilities, including environmental ones—to the two most recent requests and had the option to change the terms of those requests in giving the consent—it is not merely a question of saying yes or no, because we can vary them—the reservoirs would be able to fill more rapidly.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) asked about the compensation arrangements. The statute lays down the position. If an emergency drought order interrupts supply, compensation is ruled out under long-standing statute law, which has stood under both Labour and Conservative Governments. It is for the Director General of Water Services to decide to hold an inquiry. As the House will know, he has been following the matter very closely indeed.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry


What Yorkshire Water does in terms of its own inquiries is entirely for it to decide, but it is important for us to draw conclusions from what has happened this year, to ensure that it does not happen again. I have made it clear once again to Yorkshire Water that, irrespective of the weather conditions and the rainfall, we must not find ourselves in a similar position next year. That means a sustained programme of refilling reserves in the reservoirs in the coming months and of putting right some of the faults in the system.

As I have said in public and to the company's face repeatedly, a justifiable criticism can be made of the company. At the turn of June or in July last year, it should have realised that demand was going through the roof. It was rising rapidly and the company did not respond quickly enough and placed too great a hope in the weather eventually changing. If it had acted more rapidly, particularly to reduce compensation flows out of reservoirs into streams, we would have been in a much better position now. At their height, the flows were about 80,000 tonnes a day, which is half the entire consumption of Calderdale and Kirklees. Frankly, the water was running to waste.

Action has to be taken on four fronts. The first is for Yorkshire Water. It is urgent that the company addresses itself to the problems of the distribution grid within Yorkshire. It inherited an extremely old, unmodernised and out-of-date grid and serious problems are caused by, for example, subsidence from mining, which makes it difficult to improve and replace the system—[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members will recognise that fact when Yorkshire Water has to replace the grid and improve the mains in places such as Halifax. It will mean considerable disruption because of the road and engineering works that it entails. I hope that they will not complain about the disruption when that work takes place.

Secondly, Yorkshire Water has to ensure that it is able to secure the necessary long-term water supplies. It must study rising demand and the possible trends and realise that, in five out of the past seven years, there have been hosepipe bans, which should have been a litmus test for the problems to come and led it to take action earlier this year. Now the company has to set out clearly the actions that it will take in the medium and long term. That means dealing with the leaks and reviewing the compensation water regimes, which the Secretary of State has already undertaken to review.

It is a matter of renewing the grid network within Yorkshire so that capacity is improved, particularly to enable the company to move water east-west. As the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, one of the problems has been that rainfall has tended to be in the east, whereas the historical pattern was for rain to fall over the Pennines. The company has to consider improvements in pumping capacity and the overall supply position. That may include looking for new, long-term supplies, including Kielder Water—no doubt to the eventual long-term benefit of shareholders in that company.

The Government have made it clear that, if the companies do not do well enough, we shall consider statutory leakage reduction targets.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)


Mr. Curry

That is a responsibility that should fall on the companies. That is why there is a statutory undertaking. Although the Labour party is deeply in love with the Armageddon strategy, and would love Yorkshire to run out of water, which would give it political satisfaction, I do not intend to give it that satisfaction—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Mahon

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry


Mrs. Mahon

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is the most outrageous and insulting remark and the Minister should withdraw it immediately.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. In the few minutes available, I should have thought that the House would want to hear what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Curry

I realise that there is colossal concern in Yorkshire about the situation. I have tried to outline the position and what can be done about it. The Labour party has engaged in a constant programme of political barracking, which I do not think will be appreciated by the people who are concerned in Yorkshire. It is a tone different from that of the constructive conversations that I have had with Labour Members from Yorkshire. I wish that that had been carried through into this debate and not what we have heard this morning.

I can well appreciate that, for Yorkshire Water, the satisfaction of shareholders matters. I can equally understand the importance of the views of its City analysts and financiers. However, the people who matter most of all are the customers and consumers of Yorkshire Water, because they have nowhere else to go. They must be given priority in the future investment programmes of Yorkshire Water.