HC Deb 09 June 1998 vol 313 cc855-6
1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

What plans he has to ensure that environmental considerations are included in the periodic review of water prices. [43225]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

As part of his price review, the Director General of Water Services has requested guidance on the environmental obligations that water companies will be expected to meet. We have invited views on the issue and will publish our guidance in the summer.

Dr. Cable

Does the Minister accept that, hitherto, water regulation has given too much comfort to shareholders at the expense of both the consumer and the environment? When he gives guidance, will he take account of public opinion as reflected in independent surveys, which suggest an overwhelming preference for environmental improvement and reduced leakage, rather than for reduced prices in the next review?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the previous price review was, in retrospect, unreasonably generous to the water companies and their shareholders—I think that that lesson has now been learned. I take note of the suggestion of the chair of the Environment Agency that cost efficiencies achieved since the most recent periodic review, and further cost reductions in future could fund a £10 billion improvement in environmental goals without any real-terms increase in bills. The Government are considering those matters.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

On the Government's consultation paper on water charging in England and Wales, does the Minister recognise that circumstances in Wales may be different from those in many parts of England? In Wales, we have a plentiful supply of water, so water metering may not be appropriate in encouraging sustainable attitudes. Does he agree that the matter should be left to the National Assembly for Wales, which will be up and running in June next year, so that we can adopt in Wales an approach that is appropriate to the social and environmental realities of Wales?

Mr. Meacher

We certainly want Wales to adopt a system that is appropriate to the different water conditions that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, exist in Wales. As I am sure he knows, the Government are clear in their view that, over and above the new houses that are being built, water metering should not be extended unless people want a meter. If individual householders apply to the water company for a meter, that is fine, but the Government do not believe that there should be universal compulsory metering, as we have made clear in our document.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the Minister explain why the rate of investment in the water industry has doubled since the 1980s? Is that, perhaps, one of the achievements of new Labour?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman is, as always, very selective. He has failed to recognise that the price of water has increased in real terms by between 35 and 40 per cent. since privatisation, which is faster than any other commodity.