HL Deb 11 May 1967 vol 282 cc1621-34

4.25 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, from the subject of the infantry of the British Army may I return to the more pedestrian matters of the Water (Scotland) Bill. From the leakage of the secrets of State may I come down to the question of the water leaks which occur in the inefficient distribution of water at the present time in Scotland and which this Bill seeks to remedy. I would join with other noble Lords in giving a warm welcome to this Bill, the general principles of which are accepted on all sides.

I was particularly persuaded by the advocacy of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, his clear exposition of the reasons for having an ad hoc regional authority and the importance of the ad hoc regional authority. It is therefore rather interesting to see in the report in the Scottish Press to-day of evidence given to the Royal Commission on Local Government, sitting at present in Edinburgh, that the Directors of Education were pressing their views in favour of regional education authorities, but that these proposals were countered by Mr. Norman Graham, Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, who said that the ad hoc system had been condemned and they knew no reason why it should be more successful now. The serious problem, he said, lay in having two local government authorities both dependent on local government finance structure. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to give us an assurance that Mr. Graham was speaking for himself, that his views are not those of the Government and that St. Andrew's House is not speaking with two voices.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has raised the question of Orkney and Shetland being linked with Caithness in one regional authority. I hope that the Government will take another look at this absurdity. During the war I served for a time in Ultima Thule and in a modest way was responsible for the provision of water for the troops, as I happened to command a battalion that was moved into a new area. The water supply is what one might call a very ad hoc thing throughout these islands of Orkney and Shetland. It is impossible to work a large system of water supply; water is taken from the locality. Some of the islands are large; they have hills and a good water shed, and it easy to collect the water. All that is needed for organising a good water supply in the greater part of these islands is an intelligent plumber. There is no need for a water board at all. If the problem in Orkney or Shetland, or in any of these islands, becomes too difficult they can do as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested and call in consultants.

The absurdity of this proposal to link the islands with Caithness can hardly be credited. Here you have Orkney and Shetland looking to Aberdeen for their main communications, looking to Aberdeen for their Hospital Board, looking to Inverness for the Highland Development Board, looking to Inverness for the Crofters Commission; and now, under this Bill, they will have to look to either Wick or Thurso for their water supply. The idea does not stand reasonable examination, and I hope that something can be done to put this matter into proper perspective.

To change to another subject, the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, raised the question of how the river purification boards are likely to be affected by the regional water boards and water development boards. I think it is most important that before the major water developments take place, when they are planned, it should be written into the Bill that purification boards should be consulted at that stage. If water is suddenly extracted from a river either by a regional board or by a development board, without the purification authority knowing, then the purification authority will have immediately to raise its standards; and that may have serious repercussions on industry. It is absolutely vital that the purification boards should know what is going on at the earliest possible moment. Already in their sixteen years existence they have gained tremendous local knowledge. They have the understanding of how to gauge rivers; they have the knowledge of the flow of the rivers, and they have the understanding of the measurement of the rainfall which affects the problem. They also employ people called hydrological engineers. Hydrological engineers are not the same species of engineer as the water engineers, who are the engineers of the type that will be employed by these water boards and water development boards.

I should like to remind the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, of the assurances he gave me when we were discussing the last purification board Act in this House, of the high quality of the scientists and engineers already employed, or to be employed by the purification boards; and he said that there was no need for we ordinary mortals to have any fear about their probity or skill. Those employed in the purification boards have that knowledge which the water boards will not have. Therefore I think that it should be written into the Bill that there should be, at a very early moment in thinking out the scheme, consultation with the purification boards. I would also point out that in the Lothians area 50 per cent. of the river water comes from underground sources, and the problem of the water before it reaches the rivers should be considered.

In the Third Schedule to the Water Purification Act 1951 the river purification boards are included among the bodies to whom notice of proposals to make a Water Order are required to be given. This provision seems insufficient, since by the time that stage is reached a draft Order will already have been published, and the only public remedy would be a formal objection, leading to a time-consuming public inquiry. And once you get the water engineers up against the hydrological engineers, you have two sets of experts fighting each other at an inquiry. I suggest they would be much better occupied being made to thresh out their problems at an early stage. My Lords, this situation of too late consultation with the purification boards has already occurred once in Scotland, in the Lothians area, and a repetition of this in the future could be averted if a requirement for this earlier consultation is written into the Bill. It is because of this that I would plead that the Government give consideration to an Amendment to this effect.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, with the knowledge and consent of my noble friend Lord Bowden, whose name appears on the list of speakers in mistake for my own, I hope I may detain your Lordships for a few minutes in connection with what is a purely Scottish problem. As I am sure everyone will agree, we are indebted to the Minister, my noble friend Lord Hughes, for his clear explanation of the Bill, but there are one or two points which the staff consider to be most important. Amendments have been put down centring round Clause 20. Of course, I do not propose to discuss those Amendments at the present stage, but I sincerely believe that if between now and the Committee stage the Department and my noble friend Lord Hughes, with his long and varied experience of local government in Scotland, get together, with the assistance of the representatives of the staff, they will be able to resolve the difficulties and effect adjustments.

Ordinary organisation causes problems, and with this Water Bill there is a major reorganisation for Scotland. I believe I am correct in saying that 199 separate authorities will disappear in due course, when this Bill becomes law. On reflection, noble Lords will realise how all the staffs of those authorities must feel concerned for the future. But I believe that if what I have suggested takes place between now and the Committee stage we may be able broadly to overcome these difficulties to the satisfaction of all concerned, and that when it becomes law the Bill will enter on its new stage with the goodwill of all concerned.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill. In doing so I have the unanimous support of seven water authorities; namely, the Counties of Ross and Cromarty, the Royal Burghs of Dingwall, Tain and Fortrose, the Burghs of Cromarty and Invergordon, and, last but not least, Stornaway in the Isle of Lewis. Noble Lords who are familiar with this area and others like it, and indeed those who are not familiar with it but who look at a map, will come to the same conclusions, I think, as those which are so well set out in the Final Report of the Scottish Water Advisory Committee. In this the Committee advise that Ross and Cromarty Water Board should cover all the water authorities that I have just mentioned.

I will not go into all the conclusions that made this the obvious course, as they are all detailed in paragraph 86 of the Report. But, broadly speaking, they give as overriding reasons—and this applies to the Highland counties generally—the widely flung landward areas, almost wholly covered by mountain mass, the population for the most part scattered sparsely in glen and coastal lowland and therefore served perforce by local water supply systems. The Report continues that any amalgamation with another county would be quite unsatisfactory, creating managerial difficulties, and would be inefficient and uneconomic.

I know that Orkney and Shetland wish to continue as two separate water authorities, and I have no desire to introduce any spanner into their works; yet we should object very strongly if any change introduced by this Bill were to alter the position of Ross and Cromarty. I would draw the attention of the House to the difference in population within the area which I have mentioned. The two water authorities in Shetland would serve a population of under 18,000, while the three authorities in Orkney would serve a combined population of under 19,000. The 3,000 square miles of Ross and Cromarty have a total population of over 57,000, of which 43,000 live in the landward area and within six small burghs. This Bill is well reasoned and workable, and I would urge your Lordships to give it your support.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to make one or two remarks before the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, replies to the debate. I support all that my noble friend Lord Lothian has said, and would commend the principles lying behind the Bill. I should like to ask one or two questions of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. These water boards are, of course, regional water boards, and rightly so. What will be the relationship between the county councils and these regional boards? Can the regional boards operate quite independently of the county councils or the city councils within their areas? In other words, will they be all-powerful bodies?

I should like also to join my noble friend Lord Lothian in his question as to whether the Bill will contain any provisions relating to appeals. If a local authority has recently embarked upon a big, expensive new water supply, as is the case in the county council of which I am a member, the costs involved are very considerable, and are met partly by central grant and as to a large part from the ratepayers. When these supplies are taken over will the Boards pay compensation to the county council and, through them, to the ratepayers for the amount of money which they have been spending in recent years in putting in a new water supply? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is aware of the Alewater scheme, which is a very large scheme and one which is not yet finished, but which will make a great contribution to the water supplies in the Borders of Scotland.

May I ask the noble Lord if he can say whether the boards will be anxious to develop new water supplies so as to increase supplies of water everywhere? Of all the local authority subjects one comes up against when speaking to people all over the country, the subject of water is always predominant; there just never seems to be enough water. I hope that most of the new regional water boards will pursue actively and energetically the question of getting enough water. It is not only a question of the needs of industry and housing. The agricultural industry to-day, with its modern equipment and methods, requires water, and its needs will increase as the years go by.

The noble Marquess asked whether the boards would have upon them representatives from industry. May we be assured that the agricultural industry will be well represented upon them? When I look through the list of the boards and the areas into which they are divided, I am struck by the fact that the overwhelming number of boards which are being joined together in these regions deal with industrial subjects and areas. I hope very much that the interests of agriculture will not be overlooked, as I think they are apt to be at present; it is certainly unfortunate when they are overlooked.

Finally, I would ask the noble Lord to remember, when he is considering appointments to the boards, that women are as heavy users of water as men. Therefore, when he is thinking of choosing people to serve upon water boards, I hope he will remember that in local authorities there are a great many first-class women who are interested in health, welfare and water supplies. I hope that we shall not be faced with a whole body of regional water boards to which not one single woman is appointed. The noble Lord knows that this is one of my "King Charles's heads" with which I pursue him from time to time, but I thought that if I got my word in now he would have no excuse, when the moment for appointment comes, to say that the idea had never occurred to him. With those few remarks, may I say that I support the Bill, and hope that it will prove to be a very useful piece of legislation for Scotland.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, may I intervene for a moment or two? The Orkneys have been mentioned, and I know the Orkneys fairly well. I was taking a walk one day in the Orkneys and came upon a small crofter's house. There was a dear old lady of about 65 tending a cow. I sat down and had a little talk with her and said, "When did you last go across to Caithness?". She said, "I've never been to Caithness". I said, "Why not?". She answered, "I would not trust my life with those Sinclairs".


My Lords, I should like to ask one question of the noble Lord. Lord Hughes; and I apologise to him for not being present when he started his speech. I should like to take up a point which was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, which was that the Bill does not anywhere say what the duties of the regional boards are to be. It may well be argued that since it is monopolistic this is not very important, as it is not possible to lay down duties and see whether or not they are being carried out. But it raises the question of how the ordinary member of the public can have any influence on the regional boards. How is the member of the public to get anything done, and what kind of pressure can he bring to bear?

Most of these regional boards, so far as I can see, will consist of representatives from the local authorities. Local autho rities vary in the degree of sensitiveness which they show towards members of the public and public representation, but this organisation set out in the Bill is one step away from a local authority. It would not appear to me that it would be very sensitive to public pressure. It would be interesting to know how representations could forcefully be made. This is something which is very real and which not only affects industry and agriculture, but private houses and ordinary people. How can an ordinary member of the public get his views put across to such a body? I welcome the Bill as a step forward, but I should be grateful if the House could be given some idea how the point which I have outlined could be met.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the House for the welcome which has been given to the Bill, and I will endeavour to answer some of the points that have been raised during the discussion. The noble Marquess asked whether there would be any provision for a public inquiry where there were conditions arising under Clause 5. I would remind your Lordships that Schedule 3 to the Bill lays down the procedure to be followed in the circumstances. A draft order has to he advertised, so there is an opportunity for objections. Under the Bill the Secretary of State will consult interested authorities about his proposals, and if there are objections which are not withdrawn the order has to have the approval of Parliament.

These are very wide safeguards, and it seems inappropriate, having regard to all this, that the Secretary of State should be required, in addition, to hold a public inquiry. The Secretary of State already has power to hold an inquiry into any matter which may be considered necessary under Section 73 of the Water (Scotland) Act 1946. Should he consider that he needs the benefit of an inquiry into a draft order under Clause 5, he would not hesitate to use the power which he already has under that previous Act.

The question of the value of having direct representation of industry on regional water boards was discussed, I think fairly fully, in another place. It was decided that that was not necessary because, having regard to the wide nature of the representation which is to come from the local authorities, in the sort of regional boards to which the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, particularly referred, it is virtually impossible that the local authorities could keep out of membership all the representatives of the agricultural industry who form such a large part of their own membership. It would require an exercise in ingenuity almost beyond that of the ordinary county council so to devise the representation as to keep them all out. So I do not think there need be any undue worry that these boards will not have within their membership people with experience in almost all of those subjects in which the boards would be interested.

The noble Marquess raised the question of bridging finance. The special financial arrangements to which I referred, and which are contained in Clause 11(5), are meant to ease the transition from varying rates to a common regional rate. For those authorities whose rates will go up as a consequence of regionalisation part of the increase will be deferred by a similar deferring of part of the reduction which some of the other authorities will get. It is purely an adjustment between the rating authorities concerned. That is why I was able to say that if we had a proposal which was accepted by all the authorities concerned, the Secretary of State would have little difficulty in putting it into effect. I must, however, at the risk of disappointing the noble Marquess, make it quite clear that there is in this connection no intention involving an injection of additional Exchequer funds.

He also raised the question of staff who carry out omnibus duties. In addition to water supply, he mentioned sewerage, lighting and a variety of other services. It may be that in the more remote areas it will be necessary for the existing local authority staff who are responsible for some of these other subjects as well as for water to continue to carry out some minor functions on behalf of the new water board, at least for a transitional period. Clause 25 provides that a local authority may provide a regional water board, or a water development board, with such services as the board may request. This will help local authorities whose employees are not being transferred to the new board but whose duties would otherwise be fragmented because of the transfer of water functions.

Those who are engaged full-time on water supply will, of course, transfer to the new boards, if they so wish, under Clause 20.

The noble Marquess and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, raised the question of consultation with river purification boards. I would not dispute for one moment the importance which they rightly attach to this matter; and my right honourable friend entirely shares their view of its importance. But it does not require a statutory obligation to consult. After all, water cannot suddenly be abstracted from a river. The water board will require to obtain the Secretary of State's consent to an order under Section 21 of the Water (Scotland) Act 1946, and the board will have to serve notice on any interested river purification authority. The Government's view is that water boards should carry out the widest consultations with all interested parties, and that could mean not only river purification authorities but also fishery boards, the Nature Conservancy, angling associations and others.

The omission of a reference to any one of these in a Statute might be regarded as meaning that consultations with them were not needed. I assure noble Lords that steps will be taken administratively to advise boards by departmental circulars to consult widely at the earliest stage in the formulation of their proposals to develop a scheme. This is best done by persuasion, rather than by requirement, and by having regard to the common sense of the people who are going to do these jobs. Nobody goes out of his way to make difficult what would otherwise be an easy job by ignoring the people with whom he is going to work, and this is the best safeguard to ensure that, so far as possible, difficulties will be eliminated in advance. The Government have set an example in this. All these discussions that are taking place at the present time come very much into this category of early inquiries, so that one can find out where the difficulties are, where the disagreements may be, and give the maximum amount of time for ironing them out and reaching agreement. I think noble Lords will have no occasion to be worried about the way in which the new boards perform these functions.

More than one noble Lord raised the question of Orkney and Shetland, and if I refer particularly to the way in which the arguments were deployed by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, it is perhaps because he may be conceived to have a special interest in this matter beyond and above that of the noble Marquess and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno. It was stated earlier on by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that we should be careful about getting into discussion of constituency matters. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was so regarding it. I do not think so. But we must be equally careful—and perhaps the intervention of the noble Marquess and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, makes it unnecessary for me to say so—not to get into the position of regarding Orkney and Shetland as being a Liberal colony.


My Lords, is the noble Lord telling me, and indeed the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Fraser of North Cape. that he has been "got at by those Sinclairs"?


Perish the thought, my Lords! What I would say on this is that I have listened very carefully to all that has been said, and if eventually it should prove that we can do something about it, it is not because we regard Orkney and Shetland as a Liberal colony. If we should decide that we cannot do anything about it, it is not because the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, has brought any particular pressure to bear on me to regard the interests of Ross and Cromarty as being supreme over those of Orkney and Shetland. The one certain thing that has emerged from this Bill and the discussion, is that whatever happens there will not be unanimous approbation in the Lords about the way Orkney and Shetland has been dealt with, because if I satisfy the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian. and the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Balerno, the Sinclairs, led by the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, will be after me.

I hope that I misheard the noble Lord, Lord Henley, because I thought that at one point he made a reference to a "Scotch" water board. I would remind him that it is perfectly proper, although some people regard it as a disgusting habit, to talk about Scotch and water, but "Scotch" water is something of which we do not admit the existence.

The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, referred to an apparent discrepancy in the views of the Scottish Office on the value of ad hoc bodies. In the first instance, it is possible that strong arguments could be advanced against an ad hoc education authority, without necessarily implying that every other ad hoc body suffered from the same disadvantages. I do not propose to express any views on that subject. But I can assure the noble Lord that the opportunity has been given to Departments in the Scottish Office to put forward departmental views in relation to the reorganisation of local government. and no steps whatever have been taken by the Secretary of State to vet these views in any way. The Departments are free to put forward views which may or may not coincide with those put forward by other Departments, and the Secretary of State is not under any obligation to back one or other of them.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that particular assurance, as well as for his other assurance about purification boards.


I thank the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Burden, raised the question of safeguarding the rights of staff. Clause 20, I think it is, talks about those employees who are employed solely on water duties. This does not mean that employees who are engaged partly on water duties and partly on other duties may not be taken over, if they are willing to transfer. It is simply that it was not thought desirable to make it mandatory on the new boards to take such officers into their employment. Indeed, to do so might well frustrate the general activities of local authorities. It might be that manpower would be better used if some of these officers remained with a local authority and were employed in, for example, its engineering department. The problem must be kept in perspective. The information I have is that about 75 per cent. of the employees are engaged whole-time on water duties, and under the Bill these will automatically transfer; but many of the others may be taken over as well.

I should like, however, to give the noble Lord, Lord Burden, the assurance which I have given on previous Bills when this question has arisen; that we have not had difficulty in the past in satisfying the staff that the arrangements being made in relation to compensation and other matters were fair, and I do not expect to have any such difficulty on this occasion. If the noble Lord should find it necessary at the next stage to table an Amendment on this matter, I assure him that it will receive very careful consideration.

The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, asked whether local authorities would be compensated for having their assets taken over. The answer is, No. This reorganisation represents a sharing of responsibilities on a regional basis, and all the local authorities who become involved in the regional boards will have not only their assets but their liabilities transferred to the new boards for the benefit of the whole community. Some, of course, will feel that they have got a better bargain than others. It may be that some of those who have spent a great deal of money on improving their services may be among those who will find that the rates will diminish, and that some of those who have not done quite so much, or who have found it easier to meet their particular requirements, may have to pay more. But the emphasis is on a sharing of these responsibilities, and the boards will take over both liabilities and assets.

The noble Baroness also asked: what will be the relationship with the county councils? The regional boards will be completely independent bodies. They will be independent of the county councils in the same way as the counties are independent of the boroughs, or the boroughs are independent of the counties. Technically, they are entirely independent. In practice, however, they will have some common membership, and we have no doubt that they will work in close collaboration on all matters in which they have a common interest.

Then the noble Baroness asked whether the boards would be able to augment water supplies in their own regions, because experience has shown that, no matter how much there is, there always seems to be a need for more. There will be a statutory duty placed on the boards to provide wholesome water supplies for the whole of their districts. The only limitation on what can be done is that it should be capable of being carried out at reasonable cost; and I am quite certain that this obligation is one that almost every board would be expected to keep firmly in mind. Everybody wants a water supply, but people do not want to have to pay "through the nose" for it.

The final point (I am sure the noble Baroness would never forgive me if I did not answer it), was the question of women's membership of these boards. This, of course, is primarily a matter for the local authorities, and if—and I have no doubt that she is perfectly right—there are so many capable women in the local authorities who can become members of one or other of these water boards, and if at the end of the day none of them is so serving, the reflection will certainly not be on the Secretary of State, and certainly not on the noble Baroness. It may be that, to put the best possible view on it, the local authorities so value the services of these women that they wish to keep them entirely to themselves.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.