HL Deb 17 December 1981 vol 426 cc297-322

12.22 p.m.

Lord Belstead rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st December be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order gives effect to the proposals for varying the constitution of the Welsh Water Authority which were announced in another place on 30th November. The draft is laid before Paliament in exercise of the powers conferred by Sections 2(4) and 3(10) of the Water Act 1973.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales issued a consultative document outlining his proposals for reorganising the Welsh Water Authority on 27th July of this year. This document outlined my right honourable friend's belief that the management of the authority could be improved if the present structure, with a majority of local authority members and a strong bias towards the local government system of management, with a large number of committees considering details, were replaced by a smaller board of about 10 members wholly appointed by the Secretary of State. Over 100 responses were received to the consultation document and, apart from the local government interests, the majority of them supported my right honourable friend's proposals. My right honourable friend met the local authority associations on 1st October and after hearing their views he decided to modify his proposals to the extent of increasing the board membership to 13 and making express provision for four members who, although they would be appointed by him, would be nominated by the local authorities who are at present entitled to appoint members to the authority.

While these proposals were under consideration in Wales, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission reported on the Severn-Trent Water Authority and they, too, formed the view that the local government committee system was unsuitable for the administration of a water authority. This is what the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report said: The size of the authority has resulted in a complex committee structure requiring extensive administrative and other support services. Despite its historical origins the authority is not an instrument of local government and does not therefore have to be controlled by a body which is largely composed of people who derive their membership from the electoral process of local government. Its policies and activities are in no way dependent on political issues within its particular boundaries. It is one of 10 similar bodies which are virtually nationalised industries organised on a regional basis responsible to Ministers and co-ordinated by the National Water Council. We recommend that the size of the authority"— that is, the Severn-Trent Authority— should be substantially reduced and that its members should not be based predominantly on local government representation". The Government take the view that those comments apply as much to the Welsh Water Authority as they do to the Severn-Trent Authority. In proposing to change the controlling board of the authority the Government are concerned not only to improve the efficiency of the authority and its ability to make decisions but also to enhance the means whereby consumers' views are genuinely taken into account.

Consumer interests arguably are not being properly represented under the present system. With only two members from each county the representatives are necessarily remote from their electorate, especially in the large Welsh counties. Few people are aware that local authority representatives have this role on water authorities and fewer still will know which local authority members serve on the authority. Moreover, local authority members are often placed in the difficult position of having to act as consumer watchdogs while at the same time they must take part collectively in agreeing decisions which may properly accord a higher priority for the needs of other parts of the authority's area. The Secretary of State for Wales has decided therefore that there should be established five local consumer advisory committees based on local authority districts approximating to the area covered by the Welsh Water Authority divisions, or combinations of those divisions.

The order itself does not make provision for this because the powers of Section 3(10) of the Water Act 1973 do not enable the Secretary of State to provide constitutionally for consumer advisory committees. But the Welsh Water Authority themselves have power under Section 6(8) of the 1973 Act to appoint committees to advise on any matter relating to the discharge of their functions, and after taking account of the views that have been expressed the Secretary of State has formed the view that five local consumer advisory committees would be better able to safeguard the consumer interests than the present system. He believes that it would not be necessary to establish as many as seven committees corresponding to the seven divisions of the water authority in view of the fact that the three Glamorgans make up a concise area and that the boundary between the Wye and Usk divisions cannot be reconciled with local authority boundaries.

My right honourable friend therefore proposes to establish a single committee for Glamorgan and another single committee for Wye and Usk. The other three committees would cover the Dee and Clwyd, Gwynedd and West Wales divisions. The Secretary of State is preparing draft guidelines for the Welsh Water Authority relating to the constitution, functions and operations of the five committees and he will be consulting interested bodies about these guidelines.

I am advised that the establishment of these committees would not result in an overall increase in the number of committees of the authority, because in addition to their headquarter's committees at least seven divisional committees will be able to be dis- banded. I am advised therefore that the new proposals should involve overall a decrease of something of the order of £100,000 per annum in the cost of running the authority.

Finally, I should like to emphasise that the laying of this order is not to be construed as any criticism whatsoever of the existing members of the Welsh Water Authority. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has gone on record as taking the opportunity to thank the chairman, Mr. Haydn Rees, and all his colleagues for the immense amount of work they have done for the authority. The Government know full well that the Welsh Water Authority has had a difficult task since it was set up in 1974 to take over functions which for many years had been exercised by a large number of smaller bodies, but when one looks back it can be seen that the present consitution should be regarded only as an interim one to cover the development of the new authority, drawing on the experience of the local authority members. After over seven years of operation the time has now been reached when further progress requires a change of management style, and this is what the draft order proposes to do. My Lords, ask this House to approve the order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st December, be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

12.30 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his explanation of the order, although in due course the House may take the view that his comments were totally inadequate. However, I would agree with him entirely on one matter; namely, the appreciation which he indicated to my friend Mr. Haydn Rees and the members of the water authority for the excellent work they have done over the past seven years since the Welsh Water Authority was first established. The House would also do well to recall that it was a Conservative Government in 1973 that was responsible for the initial Water Act and also for the setting up of the water authority itself.

I shall comment briefly, first, on the timing of this order and, secondly, on part of its substance. On both counts, I believe there is a strong case for saying that the Government would be right and certainly prudent to give more time to second thoughts. Consultation after the event is not good enough. The noble Lord referred to consultation after the guidelines; this would be consultation after the order had been passed and after the major decision has been taken. That is not satisfactory.

More by accident than design, I believe, the Secretary of State for Wales has the power to change the composition of the Welsh Water Authority by order. The Secretary of State for the Environment, on the other hand, needs legislation to reform the English water authorities. Let us look at the time-scale. The noble Lord said that the Secretary of State set out his proposals in a consultative document dated 27th July and invited comments by 11th September, The consultation document did in fact differ from the order, in that there would have been no local government representatives at all under the original proposals. I would make the submission, and I think it is a reason able one, that the period from 27th July to 11th September, given that August is a holiday month, was quite inadequate for proper consultation with local authorities in Wales.

The noble Lord referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and I would merely say this: it is not for a quango such as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to say that local authority representation is not necessary—that is for Parliament to decide. It is not for an appointed body to say what democratic representation should be provided. The reason given for excluding local government was that, when the water authorities were set up in 1973, it had been intended that councils should among other things represent the consumer, but this was not generally appreciated by the public, as the noble Lord has just said. The Secretary of State proposed an alternative form of consumer council, upon which local government would be represented along with local industry, commerce and agriculture; trade union, amenity and consumer organizations. Another alternative proposed was consumer representation on the water authority. In the event, the Secretary of State has decided to set up five local consumer advisory committees covering district council areas approximating to the seven Welsh Water Authority divisions, or combinations of them. All seven Welsh districts are in whole or in part within the area of the Welsh Water Authority, and so are parts of 10 English water authorities, of which nine are members of the Association of District Councils. The Severn-Trent Water Authority projects into Wales, and parts of four Welsh districts are now within its boundaries. From the start I was opposed to the intrusion of the Severn-Trent Water Authority, which is an English authority, right into the heartlands of Wales, but it was the noble Lord's colleagues who in 1973 decided that that should be established for Wales.

On 27th October the Committee on Welsh Affairs in another place announced that it intended to conduct an inquiry into Welsh water, and, as part of the inquiry, would examine the Secretary of State's consultation paper. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Wyn Roberts appeared before the Committee on 2nd December, but on 1st December the order was laid before Parliament after an announcement by the Secretary of State on 30th November. Then we had the Monopoly and Merger Commission's Report on the Severn-Trent Water Authority.

Although the Secretary of State's order now includes four persons to represent local government, this in no way meets the views of district councils, which are that there is a good case for more local authority representation rather than less. The Secretary of State's proposals wholly contradict the Department of the Environment's review of the water inquiry, which emphasised that local authority membership was, designed to reflect local accountability and the need to maintain links with local authorities in the provision of essential services to the community". Hence the small increase in local authority representation in 1979. The proposals removed the valuable element of local democratic accountability of the Welsh Water Authority and its only public accountability will henceforth be to Ministers, whose position will be strengthened at the expense of local govern ment. I should have thought that this was entirely contrary to the pledges made by the Conservative Party at the last election. Replacement of local democratic control by remote ministerial appointments and controlled bureaucratic bodies will be a further move towards centralism and a weakening of the institution of local government. Close links between local authorities and water authorities are essential because, in the words of a former chairman of the National Water Council, the water services are most directly and intimately the hand-maiden of local authorities' work in the field of housing, public health and planning", [and the] "constitutional strength" of local government representation is a substantial help in the formation and strengthening of these relationships. The idea to have consumer councils—a concept abandoned by common consent when water authorities were established—is no substitute for direct local involvement. We know this from our experience of the health service report introduced by the 1973 Government. Consumer councils can never effectively reflect local and other interests, and direct local authority representation on water authorities remains the best safeguard. Local authorities through their water authority members, who are themselves consumers, have been vigilant watchdogs over the level of water and sewerage charges and charging policies.

There is acute concern in Wales about the sharp increase in water charges over the past few years. They have been able to deal at first hand through sewerage agencies with complaints about blocked or overflowing drains or sewers and their statutory duty to ascertain the sufficiency and wholesomeness of water supply means that complaints about water quality can be pursued effectively locally. Complaints under these heads form a large proportion of the total water and sewerage complaints. A framework for consumer complaints is already there, at district level. I cannot understand the right honourable Gentleman, the Secretary of State for Wales, or the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, when they say that Welsh people are not aware who their local authority representatives are on the Welsh Water Authority; they really are living in a land which I certainly do not inhabit, because the Welsh people, if they are anything, are concerned about local representation. The average Welshman is a very political person. He knows perfectly well where to go; if he wants to make a complaint or an inquiry, he will find out who his local authority representative is on the Welsh Water Authority. It is really quite an invalid argument for the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State and the noble Lord to advance to the other place and to this House.

The House must also be ware that very strong representations have been made by the Association of County Councils, the Association of District Councils and the Welsh Counties Committee. There is no doubt that they feel deeply that this is a further unfortunate attempt by the Government to erode their democratic rights. It comes at a very unfortunate time, if I may say so. I would like to quote very briefly what the Welsh Counties Committee have said on this. Firstly, they say, The Government's proposals represent a retrograde step of considerable significance to local Government. Secondly, they say, There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that consumer interests will be better served under the new proposals. Then they go on to say, thirdly: The Welsh Counties Committee does not for one moment suggest that present arrangements are perfectly satisfactory, and it would have welcomed an opportunity to participate in a thorough examination with the Government of the Welsh Water Authority. It is felt that there should have been wider consultation at a far earlier stage and before the present radical proposals were published". The third point is of considerable significance. They do not argue that there should be no reform. I do not argue that there should be no reform. They ask reasonably for more time to examine it, and it would be a great mistake to deny them.

Let me say this. There may well be a case for reform. I was no great supporter of the 1973 Act, as the noble Lord may know, but I am not entirely satisfied that this is the right reform and I am absolutely convinced that the Government are wrong to rush it through in this way. A large number of questions remain unanswered. For example, how does management fail to exercise proper financial control. How has decision-making been thwarted? And also there is the question of water charges, which has been a matter of grave anxiety in the Principality over the last seven years. The Government will lose nothing at all by allowing a further few months for consultation, and I most earnestly urge the noble Lord and his right honourable friends to make this simple concession.

12.42 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I very much agree with many, in fact all, the criticisms made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, of this Order. If I may pose a question, why is there such a rush to get this through? It is a matter entirely of a legislative quirk that the Welsh Water Authority's structure can be altered by means of an order, whereas no regional authority in England can be so altered without legislative action. That is entirely an accident.

The Secretary of State published his consultation paper on 27th July this year. That was, I think, two days before the long Recess began. The other place reassembled about mid-October, and on 28th October the Select Committee for Wales announced that they were going to look into the position of the Welsh Water Authority. In the debate in the other place on 14th December the Secretary of State said that he could not wait for the Select Committee to consider the position. Why not? It seems to me strange, I am bound to say, that when a Select Committee at the end of a long Recess, on the first opportunity they had to meet to consider the matter, announce that they will look into it, the Secretary of State should announce that he cannot wait. Why is there this rush? Is it to save £130,000. I do not believe for a moment this money would be saved. I have been in Parliament, in the other place and here, far to long not to know that these estimates of savings by these various changes of structures never come about—not even when my noble friend Lord Cledwyn was in the Secretary of State's position.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I must advise my noble friend that, as against the notional saving of £130,000, would he not agree, the Government have a duty to tell us what the cost of the new consultative committees would be?

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I entirely agree. If I may paint the proposal in a broader context for a moment, given its history—that is, water undertakings run by private companies and by local government over the years—water is now run as a public utility on a national scale. One quite understands the reasons why one should look critically and carefully at the way any public utility, whether electricity, gas or water undertaking, is run. But why should proposals of this kind be introduced piecemeal. Surely there is a very good case for investigation by the Government into how consumer representation or consumer influence is brought to bear on a public utility. For example, there is not a great deal of praise, I am bound to say, for the consumer councils in the gas industry or the electricity industry.

Many people argue that direct local authority representation, even though it is indirect with two members from each local authority, does in fact mean that there is better consumer representation in the water industry than in some of the other public utilities. I do not know what the answer is. All I am trying to ensure is that we do not have proposals like this introduced piecemeal. We should look at what is happening in the gas industry, the electricity and the water industry, to see what is the best way of bringing about the most effective consumer representation. Therefore, the introduction of the order at this stage is misconceived.

One should have had the opportunity, first of all, to consider what the Select Committee discovered about the water industry in Wales. Secondly, the Department of the Environment are going to publish a paper in March next year making proposals arising from the criticisms made by the Monopolies Commission of the Severn Trent Authority. I entirely agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Cledwyn; that is, that one would not accept, at its face value, the criticism of a Quango on such a thing as a water authority. A Quango may think that any utility is best run as a Quango and take a very different view from that which a Select Committee might take. But there is no reason that has been advanced by the Government for the urgency of this matter.

If I may come to the second point, this is the merit of the proposals. I am inclined to believe that if the Welsh Water Authority is to be improved there is a case to be made for a slimming down of the actual body. But when this criticism is made—who is the local authority representative of any area on the Welsh Water Authority?—I would not mind betting that you would not find one person in a hundred in Wales who would know who is the local consumer council representative on the Gas Board or the Electricity Authority. They are much more likely to know who is the representative of the local authority. That does not mean that a large proportion of the population would know, but at least you would probably find that they were more aware of the people on the water authority than the people on the Gas Consumer Council or the Electricity Consulta- tive Council, whatever it is called. So I do not think the merits of the proposal have been made out.

Thirdly, I would raise the question of the proposal itself. Agriculture is no longer to have a direct representative on the authority. That seems to me to be a very great weakness. If water affects anything, it is agriculture. There has to be a representative who has experience of land drainage and of fisheries, but surely agriculture is at least as important as fisheries and land drainage. After all, it is the largest single industry in Wales and it is directly affected by everything, or most things, the water authority do. The Secretary of State in another place said that in fact business included agriculture, but that there would be no direct representative of agriculture. I regard this as one of the major weaknesses of the proposal by the Government, subject, as I think it is, to the criticisms already made of the proposals. But taking the proposal as it is, surely the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, can give an undertaking today that there should be a direct representative of the agricultural industry on this authority.

12.49 p.m.

Viscount Ridley

My Lords, I hope it is in order for a mere Englishman to intervene in this somewhat Celtic debate. I would like, if possible, to represent the views of the Welsh counties and the Welsh members of the ACC on the matter. I do not doubt the need after seven years to reorganise the membership of the Welsh or any other Water Authority. No doubt 35 members was much too large a number for things to get done. But I do not think it has anything to do with Parliament, certainly not with Secretaries of State, how they organise their committee systems. I would have thought that was something that should not have provoked this, and something that could safely be left to whatever the authority may wish to do.

We debated the Water Act 1973 very fully indeed in this House. I think that at that time my noble friend Lord Sandford was on the Front Bench and he may be able to tell us much more about it. It seems to me absolutely wrong that we should proceed to legislate in this way for Wales without dealing with the whole country as one. I know, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, has said, that the reason is that Wales can be dealt with separately like this, but England needs primary legislation. But surely the decision which the House comes to today on Wales will inevitably be quoted when we come to discuss England and will pre-empt whatever decision we may wish to make. It will be said that because the House or Parliament agreed to reduce the number on the Welsh authority there is no case for not doing exactly the same thing to the 10 English water authorities when the time comes.

It has been suggested by other noble Lords who have spoken that there is no reason given for this unseemly haste in proceeding to legislate today. I do not think that it is fair to say that there has been no consultation. This Government arc not famous for consultation, but in this instance I think that perhaps they have done their best. The only reason which I can find—from reading the debate in another place this week—for this unseemly haste is the fact that the chairman of the Welsh Water Authority is to retire in May, and it would be nice to have it all done and finished with before his successor takes over. That seems to me the worst possible basis for any legislation—we have a chairman of an appointed Quango whose time is up and a new one has to take over, and therefore we must legislate the week before Christmas in this hole-and-corner method.

In the debates in 1973, Parliament, in its wisdom or otherwise, made some considerable effort to ensure that the membership of all the water authorities had a built-in local authority membership as a majority. That was done, I think, not necessarily because members of local authorities knew anything more about water than anyone else—and certainly I would give the members of Welsh local authorities the credit for drinking as much whisky as anybody else with their water—but also because members of local authorities were, in fact, elected to represent their constituents and their worries. That is why I believe that Parliament chose to have this majority of local authority people. It is not true to say that it is a better way of representing the consumer interests. Surely the locally elected person—this point has already been made this morning—is far the best person to represent the electorate in any matter, whether it is water or anything else. I join with other noble Lords in wondering whether the consultative committee is in any way a satisfactory substitute.

Furthermore, I must strongly disagree with my noble friend the Minister when he said something about councillors being remote from their electorate. Surely that is something which no one in this House could accept. My limited experience of Welsh local authorities is that they are extremely close to their electorates and if they were not they would very soon be put out at the next election.

The proposals are such that the Welsh county councils will he reduced in membership from at present eight Welsh members and two English to a total of two from the 10 county councils. That is because two English county councils are involved—namely, Cheshire, and Hereford and Worcester. This is a drastic reduction and the majority, of course, is to go. The Welsh councils feel very strongly that this is wrong. Never mind; if that is to be done and the majority is to go, then surely we must make sure that a basic and very important constitutional change of this kind should be debated in the context of the whole country and not just as an ad hoc decision for Wales. It may be the right thing to do, but certainly I think that it would be quite wrong to take this decision today and then use it, as I have already said, as a pretext for doing the same thing in England.

Furthermore, if the Secretary of State in his wisdom chose to appoint one of the two county council members from the two English counties I can see an almighty outcry from Wales, quite justifiable, and therefore the two English counties are, to all effective purposes, unlikely ever to be represented at all. It is another example of the Government's continual eroding of the powers and duties of local authorities and their replacement by centrally appointed Quangos or bodies of that kind.

Water is—and at least the Monopolies Commission have now squarely put it on record—a nationalised industry, but it need not have been and I still think that it would have been better if it had been left, as to a great deal at least, in the hands of locally elected people. I am sorry that the Government choose to go down this road. Even if it is a small step it is a significant constitutional step, and I hope that it can be deferred.

I find particularly objectionable the power that the Secretary of State takes in this order to appoint all the members himself. It is perhaps correct that he should appoint the chairman and should appoint the other members for their specific interests and the contribution which they can make. I have no doubt that all those on the Welsh authority have done their best and, I believe, have done very well indeed in a difficult job. But in my view it is quite impossible to suggest that the Secretary of State should appoint the local authority members himself. It looks as though they cannot even be trusted to appoint from their own number those people whom they wish to represent local government. If they cannot be trusted to find two councillors from among their representative councils, but the Secretary of State has to do it for them, then it shows no confidence whatever in Welsh local government. I hope that the Government will think again very seriously on this whole matter.

12.55 p.m.

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, I rise to speak as a hydrologist. I welcome this order because it strips an organisation which confessedly I have heard in your Lordships' House has been structured as a Quango. As such it has been dominated by amateurs in the world of hydrology. I am pleased with the order because it tells us strictly that we are now going to have a hoard which is composed at least of some real experts.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, mentioned drainage. I see that we are to have a member of the board who knows something about land drainage, which I agree with the noble Lord is extremely important. But when we come to deal with this subject it is not one that should be dominated by politics. Rivers and underground water tables do not conform to political boundaries: they are the gift from heaven. If we talk to some of the members of these authorities—I shall not pick on Wales in isolation—as I have done from time to time, we find that they are completely mystified by the essence of water. Water is not just simply H2O—it is one of the most mysterious and the most important molecules ever invented by nature. If it were not for that invention, we as human beings, or any form of life for that matter, would never have appeared on this planet. It was the formation of water that started all history of life on earth.

I shall not treat your Lordships to a Jules Verne lecture, but I shall try to emphasise that these political amateurs, these "quango-ites" have been functioning, as I understand it, for seven years unsuccessfully. I mention "unsuccessfully" because that is the reason for change. You now realise that what you need on this board is somebody to run an industry—the water industry—and not a political machine. So I am delighted to see that at least we are to have somebody who understands something about fisheries, and particularly somebody who understands something about land drainage, because land drainage is the most important element in agriculture and horticulture.

Perhaps I may illustrate my point by mentioning two or three matters that are on-going among us experts at present in Wales. If you go to Aberdovey—mystique, wonderful place—you find that it has never been really developed horticulturally. Why?—because the Mabinogions forgot to take the salt out of the soil (for the benefit of Englishmen I mean the little men of Wales). What we scientists can now do is reduce the level of salt in the Aberdovey area where there are climatic conditions which would produce a horticultural industry you have never even thought about.

Then you turn a little further north to Bannouth. I had a call in 1948; we moved into Barmouth to process the muds of the Barmouth estuary in the complete belief and, in fact, the scientific conviction, that we could take out of the Barmouth estuary as much gold as England would wish. We were not simply going to take the gold out and forget the rest; we were going to resoil the Barmouth estuary with the type of soil which is as rich as that which you find today in Norfolk—the soil that was recovered from the sea for us by the Dutch. There is one axiomatic point about soil. The richest soils anywhere on earth are those which have been last to emerge above sea level; they are the soils which contain all the balance trace elements. With that in mind, I now turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, about land drainage.

We turn to Baglan where, along with the imaginative director of the Steel Company of Wales, as it then was, Mr. Cartwright, I worked out a whole plan for developing the Baglan Moors—derelict land. It is a tragedy. There you have a horticultural and agricultural area that could feed the whole of south Wales if properly developed. Now we can do it, because we now have on board the development of these areas, at the same time asking one question: where will we get the necessary electrical power to supply the horticultural needs for pumping, for heating the soil, for the geochemical processes et cetera?

Perhaps I may tell your Lordships something about which you may know nothing. In the eastern part of the South Wales coalfield—and it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is not here, because this is his domain—in the Aberdare area, two lowermost seams in the coalfield cannot be worked. The reason they cannot be worked is that the moment you drive an adit into those seams, the hydrostatic pressure in the carboniferous limestone 700 feet below it will burst through and drown the mine. Here, you have a form of artesian pressure which would drive a water turbine indefinitely. I could go on at great length, but the point that I am trying to emphasise is this. I am delighted with this order because at last it puts an element of pragmatism into the development of what is one of Wales' best resources—its water.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, the House has listened with great interest to him because, as a leading scientist, he speaks with such authority. However, would he not agree that when public bodies of this kind are set up—such as, the Welsh Water Authority—or, indeed, are changed substantially, there should be public consultation and that attempts should be made to seek public consent?

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, perhaps I may rise to answer my noble friend. I do not wish to enter into this question of representation and consultation, but surely the best basis for consultation is for an authority, a body, or whoever it is, to have placed before it a plan. It can discuss the plan—not the politics of the plan, but the plan. Such a board as I visualise this order will establish would produce a plan and, unquestionably, the end product will be the development of the greatest supplies of water that you can get and its best utilisation. I am as devoted a Welshman as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, but there was tremendous sense in the Trent Water Board extending its boundaries into Wales, because you had to develop the River Trent, not Plynlymon.

1.3 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I am most interested to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, with his expert contribution, but I must take issue with him on one point, where he says that the board has not been a success in the past seven years. Perhaps he does not know that there are 13 members now on the board who are appointed by the Minister for their expertise. They work together with the local government members and, in fact, they have been extremely successful in their management of water in Wales.

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, I accept that remark. What I meant was that I interpret the necessity for this water as meaning that the board has not been as successful as the Government would like it to be. That is really what I am saying.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, although I am usually a supporter of my Government, I am not sure whether they are entirely right on this matter. I think that the general trend of comments today indicates that, whether they are right or wrong, they have been quite astonishingly precipitate in what they have done here. As the noble Lord, Lord Ridley, said, some of us are concerned that this could be the forerunner for a change throughout the nine water authorities in England as well. Therefore, it is not only a very important matter for Wales, but for the whole country.

What has been done with the existing structure over the past seven or eight years is that with these large numbers of local authority members on these boards a compromise—a balance—has been achieved between the expertise of the appointed members and the contribution of the local government members. The local government members—many of whom had some expertise to contribute as well—have contributed the feelings of local people. Heaven knows! in Wales water is much more than water and everyone wants to have a say in it. It really matters that you should carry local people with you. To a certain extent that is true in all regional authorities throughout the country. So I just put it on the record that, although the noble Lord's comments are absolutely right that the hydro-logical factors are, of course, of vital importance to the whole community, not only in Wales but in England as well—because so much of our water comes from Wales—nevertheless, we need to keep the right balance.

Therefore, I turn to the order, and I must say to my noble friend Lord Belstead, who seems to be on the receiving end of rather a lot of criticism, that he has much sympathy from me in being asked to bring this order before the House today. For myself, obviously I shall not vote against it. However, I say straight away that it has been wildly precipitate; first, for itself—for Wales—and, secondly, in its implications for the country as a whole. The timetable has already been rubbed into my noble friend, and it really gave no time at all for consultation. I understand that there was one meeting with the district authorities, possibly only with the county council authorities, and they have had really no chance to say what they feel about it. They are not at all happy in having their representation reduced, in the case of Wales, from 22 to four. This will leave a very sore spot there, which will be a handicap in the future. I am sure that this is something which my noble friend does not wish to see.

The existing structure has worked well in practice. It is true that it is cumbersome in some respects, but it was an attempt to try to carry local authorities with the 1973 Act when local authorities felt very upset indeed at having functions taken away from them—the sewage function taken away completely and the water supply function taken away to a considerable extent. This was the compromise that was worked out. On the whole, it has not worked out badly. I speak now generally because this order has such obvious implications. It has not worked out badly in practice in order to obtain efficient management combined with carrying local feeling with the authorities.

I have read quite carefully the report of the Monopolies Commission, which is apparently the basis of the Government's action in this respect. I refer, of course, to the report on the Severn-Trent. It is quite obvious from that that the Monopolies Commission—an excellent body in many ways—was primarily concerned with commercial, industrial and financial affairs. They have greatly over-simplified the issue. They conclude that the volume of complaint against water authorities has proved that the existing structure does not work. My word, it might be nothing to the volume of complaint you get against the new structure. They do not realise what the complaint has arisen from. The complaint arose because in the first place these functions were taken away from local government, and therefore local government complained; and secondly, from consumers generally because the sewage function which had previously been performed by local government, and was included in the general rate payment, now for the first time became a separate payment by every householder for the sewage function being performed.

Worse than that, the central Government not only made this transfer but the rate support grant element which used to be in the local government sewage costs was now removed, and so the householder had to pay the full costs. Naturally this has meant that what used to be a simple water supply charge has suddenly doubled straight away, and then, on top of that we have had inflation over recent years which has meant that the water bill has suddenly become a very significant item.

That is the main basis of the complaint, and quite understandably if complaints continue—and they are likely to do so still—at least the local government complaint had simmered down, and local government felt that they had been given a reasonable status in the water authorities and there was reasonably har monious relationship between water authorities and local government bodies. We are going to lose all that if my noble friend goes ahead with this present proposal.

I make the point to my noble friend that while for myself I am going to accept with very much regret this order that he puts before us today, before his right honourable friends in another place, the Government generally, consider extending this order to the rest of the country, they really must have a very full consultation with local government throughout. They really must persuade local government that the new consumer council structure is going to be an improvement in giving consumers a say in the operation of this important national utility.

I repeat the point already made, that certainly from my side of the House consumer councils have never been regarded as a very satisfactory body. They have never been regarded as a body which very effectively reflects consumer interests. So what assurance have we now that a consumer council in this field is going to do that much better?

The point has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that the Monopolies Commission in their report on Severn-Trent say that the cost to the existing structure of local government in Severn-Trent was an extra £1 million a year, and that that would all be saved. But setting up the consumer councils is going to cost a lot, and the Monopolies Commission do not make an estimate for that. My noble friend gave us an estimate today of the net saving of £100,000, I notice, but as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, it is not by any means the rule that these estimates are fulfilled. In other words, I do not think that there is going to be any significant cash saving on setting up consumer councils.

The real issue is: are they going to give greater satisfaction to consumers generally? And that, of course, most importantly includes opinion in local government circles. Are they going to give greater satisfaction than the existing structure? I say absolutely finally to my noble friend that this case simply has not been proved. There is one default on Severn-Trent by a body which certainly can evaluate very well certain factors; but there are political factors in this; constitutional factors. Parliament is the place where this can be weighed up properly. Therefore, I beg my noble friend to take this message back to his right honourable friends—and indeed my right honourable friends—and ask them to give a great deal more thought to this important matter.

If we have to accept this precipitous action over Wales—and it appears that we have to—well for heaven's sake, let us have a proper study and a really balanced thought before any further action is taken. It has been rightly said that you will have to legislate to do it. This means that there will be quite a few hurdles to negotiate, but there will be plenty of time before any extension is made, and on no account should this Welsh order be seen as a precedent for an extension into the rest of the country.

1.16 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I should perhaps make clear at the outset that in general terms I support the order which is before us. This puts me at variance, I am afraid, with my noble friend and with other speakers in the debate, including the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn. No, I beg his pardon. He is the one person who, I would not say that I am not at variance with, but my reasons arc different, shall we say? I am entirely at one with the serious concern which has been expressed in all quarters of the House at the manner in which the order has been introduced and the way in which it has been dealt with.

It is particularly unfortunate that it went off with such a bad start. The dates of the introduction of the consultative document and the date by which comments were required, quite obviously had the implication that the opinion of outside bodies, both local authority and some of the voluntary organisations which are closely concerned, was really of little consequence. Anyone who had given any thought to the matter would have recognised that for the local authorities, which customarily do not meet in August, the dates proposed were frankly insulting. There is really no other word for it.

It is true that some concessions were later made in response to protests, but it was particularly unfortunate that the matter should have been handled in this way at the outset. The local authorities could not but consider it to be really a slap in the face for them. It showed a lack of sensitivity; a lack of imagination. One does not want to overemphasise this, but I am sure that it set the whole process off in an unfortunate way.

So far as the Parliamentary response is concerned, I suppose it is hardly for us in this House to comment on the diplomacy, or lack of it, exercised in relation to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in another place. Perhaps we should merely note it respectfully from a distance. Nevertheless, to my mind it was politically unfortunate that the Secretary of State did not find himself able to come to some better accommodation in relation to the Select Committee, particularly as he himself recognised in the debate in another place on 14th December that he is still in the middle of a consultative process, and yet we are being asked to accept an order which to some degree is bound to stultify the consultative process.

It was also rather sad that in the debate in the other place there was an understandable preoccupation on the part of the Welsh Members of Parliament—and there has been in the Welsh Water Authority itself—with the matter so vividly described by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent: this whole question of charges, which was bound to put this order in a difficult context. It was particularly regrettable that, because of this very understandable preoccupation with charges and the effect on the consumers, and so on, the real purpose of the order was hardly discussed in the other place. It was overlaid by details which were not directly germane to the matter in hand.

Clearly, as has been emphasised during the debate, the position of the local authorities is central to this order. Other noble Lords beside myself will have received representations from the Association of County Councils as well as from the Welsh Counties Committee, and naturally one appreciates the feelings, in particular of the county authorities. But I would not go along with the proposition of the Association of County Councils that nothing should be done in Wales because the legislation covering England is different. The Welsh position permits our Secretary of State to take an initiative in an area which is of great importance to the Principality, and personally I am glad that he has tried to do so. It leaves the English authorities either to follow suit, if the Government are not so persuaded, or they may learn from our experience and do something different. So I am afraid I do not accept the situation that because we have a different administration in Wales we should never do anything different from England, and I was rather surprised that my noble friend did not take that point as a former Secretary of State; he may or may not agree with it, but it seems to me that we have some advantages.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, my noble friend knows me well enough to know that I took that point very much to heart. The gravamen of my case is the precipitate way in which the Government have acted in this matter.

Baroness White

As I said previously, my Lords, on that we are entirely at one, but it is a point that should be made.

The main concern of the local authorities, of course, is the proposal drastically to reduce the number of local authority representatives on the Welsh Water Authority and the manner of their appointment. I did not feel that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made it clear—though perhaps I failed to follow him—exactly how the English dimension, if one may call it that, is to be handled, and I would strongly represent that four is the absolute basic minimum of local authority representation which is appropriate for the Principality itself. Therefore I take very much the point made by the noble Viscount. Lord Ridley, about the English authorities, and it appears to me that the minimum number of local authority representatives that could be acceptable on the Welsh Water Authority would be five. I do not think one can properly diminish the number of Welsh representatives below two for the counties and two for the districts.

I speak from some experience, as a former chairman of another quango, the Land Authority for Wales, where that pattern of representation, of four members with local authority backing, was adopted, and one cannot represent the areas of Wales, as well as the county and district councils, adequately with any fewer. I therefore hope that this point can properly be taken into account. The trouble with an order is that we cannot amend it but that is one of the points which in my view has been unsatisfactorily digested.

The other matter on membership in relation to the proposals which I did not feel was satisfactorily dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was the position of the Severn-Trent Water Authority member who, as I had understood from previous comments by the Secretary of State, was to be retained. I am not at all clear from the order what the position of such a member would be because he does not seem to be included anywhere in the magic number of 13. Perhaps we may also have some clarification of that.

Of course, the deeper issue, to my mind, has not been faced by the local authority associations, by the Secretary of State—in public at least—or in the debate in the other place, and that is whether a preponderance of elected members on a body which is primarily executive and managerial in nature is desirable. The members of the local authorities concerned are not elected for the purpose of running the water undertaking and they are not directly answerable to their electorate in this regard. The water industry is an industry of peculiar importance, but basically in its structure it is industrial, and I do not believe it can lend itself to an organisation based on local government boundaries, except in relation to direct consumer interests.

There is prevalent at the present time a view that so long as one is elected, all will be well. The point was made in another place that the water authority was likely to take a corporate, rather than a representational, view of their duties. But for functions such as regional water supplies, sewerage, sewage treatment, pollution control and the like, a corporate view may be more appropriate, with the necessary answerability at certain levels, but what levels those should be is the crux of the argument. To my mind, the existing pattern has been one of pseudo-democracy and needs reform. As in other publicly-owned industries, however, we have not yet struck the happy mean, and I am not necessarily convinced that the order before us does so.

I was particularly disappointed to find in the letter from the Welsh Counties Committee that they were hankering for the return to the local authorities of what are now Welsh Water Authority responsibilities. I was disappointed because it indicated a complete failure to understand the tremendous gain under the 1973 reorganisation of basing our water resources control and sewerage systems on total river catchment areas instead of on boundaries unknown to nature. I am afraid that here again I differ from my noble friend Lord Cledwyn in so far as, from the point of view of the control of water resources, it was perfectly logical to include the upper reaches of the Severn with the lower reaches of the Severn although they cross the national boundary.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if that principle were applied throughout Europe, there would he a very different map.

Baroness White

It would be a very much better map from the point of view of water control.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

That is a matter of opinion.

Baroness White

My Lords, noble Lords present today who sit on the European Communities Environment Committee will appreciate that one of the great difficulties in Europe is precisely that; there are no authorities which can control cross-boundary rivers in their entirety. We are extraordinarily fortunate from that point of view in our island situation, in that we can do so. The only place where we might have a slight difficulty would be Northern Ireland and the Republic, but fortunately those particular rivers are not of great consequence except locally.

That was a tremendous advance in the management of water resources, sewerage and sewage treatment, and I would say in passing that one of the most difficult legacies inherited by the Welsh Water Authority—and I have no doubt by others—were the local authority sewerage arrangements, some of which were absolutely lamentably inefficient. So far as the Welsh Water Authority is concerned, this extends to the English element as well as to the Welsh.

I earnestly plead with noble Lords who may think differently, and with those whom they represent, that whatever failings there may be, either in the present administration or in that proposed in the order before us, we should not hanker for the old system. I am sympathetic indeed, in that the feelings of local authorities have been aroused by the way in which the order has been introduced, but I plead with them to think clearly on the very great advantages of this element of the reorganisation.

If I may turn to one or two of the details of the order—and I greatly regret that we are not in a position to amend it—I would query some of its provisions. I appreciate that there are some matters which cannot be dealt with under an order. For example, in my view if we are to have the kind of board that is now proposed for the Welsh Water Authority, the part-time members should receive some payment, but that is a matter that we cannot discuss today.

My main concern is with the proposed composition of the authority. I have already indicated that I see considerable difficulties over the number of local authority members; I am not at all clear about the Severn/Trent relationship. In my view the balance of the proposed appointment of members by the Secretary of State is incomplete. It is incomplete in a most important respect, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, though I felt perhaps not quite in full possession of the present facts, because the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, was quite correct—there are already appointed members covering some of the functions with which the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, was concerned.

The proposed categories in the order seem to me to be too narrow. In effect, they boil down to two elements. One is business, and the other is industrial relations. It is of course true that the Secretary of State suggested that the term "business"—after all, what are management and finance, if they are not business?—should subsume agriculture. On the other hand, there is an obligation among the other members to include the land drainage authority, and I should have thought that they might very well he regarded as subsuming agriculture. In the opinion of many of us the relations between the water authorities and the land drainage interests is one of the least satisfactory relics of a past age. I do not think that, in fact, agriculture will be left out, But what is missing from the categories is any mention of the fundamental relationship between the activities of a water authority and the natural environment. To my mind, there is no nationally-based activity that is more physical than water resource control and sewerage systems, but this absolutely basic characteristic is completely over-looked in the list of desirable qualifications for membership of the authority.

It is true that in his exposition of his proposals the Secretary of State mentioned that amenity will be one of the concerns of the five local consultative bodies at divisional level, but I would sumbit that that is quite inadequate for the purpose of controlling central policy, useful as no doubt it can, and will, be at divisional level. It is far too important an element of the function of a water authority to be left exclusively to officials, more particularly as there will be full members on the authority representing particular and special interests, such as agriculture, land drainage and fisheries, and there can be conflicts of interests.

So I strongly support the view which has been put forward, by, among others, the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, the body mentioned specifically in the consultation document, and of which I have the honour to be president. We have made representations about this matter, because we are quite clear that welcome though the brief reference to amenity at the divisional level is, by itself it is not good enough. Therefore, we would be extremely unhappy if the interpretation of the qualifications required for the appointed members is not broadened, so as to include the interests which I have mentioned.

I do not wish to take up further time of the House, but from what I have said it will be clear that this is a much more complex affair than has been recognised hitherto. It is that which makes me fully understand the eagerness of the Secretary of State to do what he believes to be right and proper in the interests of the Welsh Water Authority. On the other hand, as I believe was suggested elsewhere, he has not yet appointed a new chairman. In fact, the advertisements went out not so long ago. He has a very experienced chairman in office. So far as I am aware, Mr. Haydn Rees, who is a most capable person, is still in good health, and to my mind his chairmanship might easily be extended for an additional period of six months, or whatever, to enable consultation in depth to be carried out. That has not been done, and that is why the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, is encountering such an adverse reaction from all quarters of the House.

1.35 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, two factors impel me to take a dip in Welsh water. One is the parental concern, to which my noble friend Lord Ridley alluded, and the other is that I have the honour to be the President of the Association of District Councils, which includes in its membership all the Welsh districts. The parental interest takes my mind back to the responsibility for introducing the Water Bill and passing it through your Lordships' House on to the statute book in 1973. The only two factors that I want to recall are these. First, for the whole of the three years, from the formation of the Conservative Government in 1970 to the passage of the Bill in 1973, consultations were going on about the structure of the regional water authorities, and that is why the precipitateness of the Secretary of State for Wales on this occasion is so regrettable. We are trying in a matter of a few months to undo something which took years to construct, though that is not to say that the time might not have come for some reconstruction.

The second factor leads me to want to pay a tribute at this moment to the first chairman of the Welsh Water Authority, our late colleague, Lord Brecon. I do that not merely out of respect for his name but also because there we had somebody who was primarily an industrialist, an industrialist by background, but who had sufficient political judgment to take up willingly the daunting task of chairing a body of 35 people. The body was composed of local authority representatives on the one hand, and industrialists and experts such as the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, has spoken of, on the other hand. It is the combination of those two which I believe has made the regional water authorities effective. They certainly have defects, but they are the admiration of most other authorities throughout the world who have the daunting task of managing water.

The order comes to us at a most ironic moment. Only yesterday was there marked the end of three months painful and vexatious campaign that was necessary in order to stop another right honourable friend of mine from proceeding with legislation which would have had the effect of placing another area of local government, local government finance, progressively under the control of Whitehall. That was an error of judgment occasioned by the same kind of mistake that is being made at this moment—the unwillingness to consult properly those whose interests were affected.

The campaign to which I refer came to a successful conclusion in the Statement made in both Houses yesterday. But here we have another Secretary of State—and it grieves me that it is a Tory one—introducing an order which has had virtually no proper consultation. To say that there has been consultation on a paper which went out in the last week of July, and to which the replies were required by the middle of September, is really worse than not having any consultation at all. It is an absolute insult. It has been undertaken without any proper consultation among the parties directly concerned. It has been undertaken at a time when a parliamentary committee in the other place has indicated that it is about to investigate this very matter, and it has been undertaken at a time when it is known that the Secretary of State for the Environment is about to publish a consultative paper covering the nine other authorities in England. That seems to me to be not only precipitate, but untimely and ill-judged.

Are we really satisfied that the performance of nationalised industries—because this is a step towards nationalisation—in electricity, gas, shipbuilding, steel-making, running the railways and the airways, is so satisfactory that we can take this step, in the case of Welsh water, away from local government towards nationalisation? My noble friend claimed that the county council representatives and, I think he said, district council representatives are remote from the people that the regional water authorities serve. But how much more remote is the Secretary of State for Wales? It is a ridiculous argument, if I may say so.

Are we satisfied, too—and this is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, made—that in respect of these big, remote, nationalised organisations the consumer councils are all that effective? I should have thought we were very far from satisfied. But this is the system which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State proposes to introduce to replace the local authority representation, by which, through a majority of such representation, these regional water authorities are given a measure of democratic control.

I think it is only by the good fortune of the Christmas spirit which prevails on the last day of term that my noble friend has any chance of getting this order through. I hope that he will do as my noble friend Lord Nugent was suggesting, and will take this message to his right honourable friends in another place and advise them very strongly to do a more thorough job when it comes to dealing with the English authorities.

1.42 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, very briefly, to support my noble friend Lord Ridley, and advised by the Isle of Wight County Council, I would implore my noble friend Lord Belstead to consider whether the particular error is not the precipitate nature of bringing this order before this House in view of the fact that the whole matter is to be considered for England in the very near future, with the great concern that counties must have that precedent will be set (whatever may be said) in this particular order.

Why the Isle of Wight is worth quoting in this respect is that, unlike all the other counties, we are separated wholly from the mainland by sea, by salt water, and it is of paramount importance for us that we have a say in the water that we have to share with the mainland. In many cases we give them our water; and, as my noble friend Lord Ridley said, it is highly unlikely that the English counties listed in this order will get a look in with regard to this, in the nature of things, new body, on which there are only four local authority representatives altogether. We would fear very much that the same thing might be said for our small county, in the very much wider area of the South West Water Authority. I am very uncertain as to what might be done if any of the steps are taken, but the best thing that my noble friend Lord Belstead can do is to withdraw this order and not try to press it just before we rise for Christmas.

1.44 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, water authorities are, of course, large and very important bodies with substantial incomes and capital investment programmes, and I think it is fair to say that since 1974 the need to ensure that water authorities are subject to the same disciplines as the nationalised industries has been increasingly recognised. Perhaps the first question I could answer is to those of your Lordships who say that they question whether a mirror image of the nationalised industries is something that we would want to create in the water authorities.

I would reply that, although I realise—and who more than a member of my own particular party, which has been so critical of some of the ways in which nationalised industries have developed over the years?—that the nationalised industries have very great problems, nonetheless one of the tasks to which the present Government have set their hand is to try to see that the nationalised industries are subject to discipline which will make them more cost-effective and, therefore, more efficient. The aim, therefore, is that water authorities should provide an essential service in as expert and as cost-effective a way as possible; and I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, for making this point in much more detail in his speech from his own particularly expert point of view.

Of course, the Welsh water authorities should be accountable to the Secretary of State for Wales and to Parliament; and although I have heard very clearly the criticisms of this order which have been made from all parts of the House—and I will start by giving an undertaking to your Lordships that I will personally draw the attention of both my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and also my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to what has been said on this order—I think it is fair for me to say that many of your Lordships with great experience of water matters from different points of view, not least my noble friend Lord Sandford (who, of course, was so closely involved in piloting the 1973 Bill through your Lordships' House), have also reached the conclusion that probably the time has come when some changes need to be made so far as the water authorities are concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, says, nonetheless, "But why the hurry?" My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales felt that, since he could proceed by way of a parliamentary order, he should not delay implementing his proposals by awaiting primary legislation. My right honourable friend concluded that he would be wise to take the opportunity of the retirement of the chairman on 31st May of next year to provide a change of management style and structure. If that is to be achieved, then, of course, if people are to know where they stand so far as all the many responsibilities of the Welsh Water authority are concerned, then this order is needed without delay.

Having said that, I have heard also the criticisms which have been voiced about the period of consultation—a period which was, of course, extended for one further month, and then at the end of that month, which was the month of September, on 1st October my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met the representatives of the local authorities. Perhaps I might just remind your Lordships that originally my right honourable friend proposed that the new authorities should be reduced to about 10 members, but after listening to the local authorities at that meeting he decided that the membership of the whole authority should be increased and that four members should be appointed by him specifically to represent the interests of the county and the district councils, who are entitled at present to appoint members. I should like to give an assurance to your Lordships that my right honourable friend will certainly consult with the local authority associations about the names of those to be appointed.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? The noble Lord has now made clear that the sole reason for the precipitate action that has been taken is the impending retirement of Mr. Haydn Rees, the present chairman of the authority. Given that every noble Lord who has spoken in this debate, with the possible exception of my noble friend Lord Energlyn, who was in any event advancing important scientific arguments, has criticised the Government severely for this hasty action, is the noble Lord not able now to say that he will withdraw the order on behalf of the Government? Because once the order is passed, then the die is cast. In view of the strong arguments advanced right across the board in this House (including arguments by my noble friend Lady White, who otherwise was in fact supporting the Government) and in view of the tenor of this debate, can he now not help the House by saying that the order will be withdrawn for a period of six months or so?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I entirely understand the point which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, is putting to me, but I am myself looking back at the Hansard of the House of Commons of 14th December, in column 106. There my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made the point (I paraphrase what my right honourable friend said) that, of course, he has the executive responsibility, and he felt that once he had entered into a consultative process he had a responsibility, both to his office and to those with whom he was consulting, to reach a decision. In fairness to my right honourable friend as well as to the House, that consultative process, although deprecated as being too short by your Lordships, started five months ago. Therefore, I regret that I am not in a position—considering that five months have passed since the consultative document was published by my right honourable friend—to say that it will be possible to withdraw this order today.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord is patient, but I know he would not wish to mislead the House. Consultations have not taken place for five months. Five months have passed since the publication of the consultation document. The consultation finished well before then.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I would not dissent from what the noble Lord has said. It is true that the consultation period ended at the end of September. None the less, that is not, in fact, the end of the consultation period because I have just given an assurance that in making the appointments, for instance, to the new authority if this order were to be approved so far as the local authorities are concerned, my right honourable friend will consult with local authorities as to the specific names to be appointed.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, asked me about the representation on this particular point and also about the Severn-Trent representation. She asked me about what she called, "the English dimension" which was a phrase which has been used before in the debates on this matter and about how this would work and about the Severn-Trent authority. My understanding is that if there is agreement among the local authority organisations, including those representing the English authorities, on four names the Secretary of State will accept those names; but, if not, my right honourable friend will select four names from lists submitted by the local authorities. One of the members on the authority will be appointed also as a member of the Severn-Trent Water Authority. It is a statutory requirement and did not need to be included in the order.

Baroness White

My Lords, could we be further enlightened? Is it not so that that is reciprocal; so that a member of the Severn-Trent authority is a member of the Welsh Water Authority?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is my understanding. I do not think it alters what I have said.

Baroness White

My Lords, it does. You can appoint somebody to be a member of the Severn-Trent from the Welsh Water Authority; but do you not then have to make a place for somebody from the Severn-Trent on the Welsh authority—which takes up one of the places?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, you do have to make a place and the place is within the total of 13 on the new authority.

Baroness White

My Lords, under what category does that person, the Severn-Trent man, come on to the authority?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think I covered that in the words that I delivered in reply to the noble Baroness's question. It is a statutory requirement and did not need to be included in the order.

Baroness White

My Lords, does that mean that there will then be 14 members?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is not my understanding. However, if I have got that wrong I will write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness White

My Lords—

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am sorry but I think that I have given way enough, if the noble Baroness does not think me discourteous. The question of consultation, I realise, is a matter which has troubled the House very much on this order—and I have tried, perhaps not adequately, to deal with it. But there is also the question which has been raised (and I raised it in my opening remarks) about, because of the system at the moment, the comparative remoteness of local authority representatives.

I would not want to give a wrong impression of what it was the Government were attempting to say in this matter. The view of the Government on this is that at present any local committees set up by the authority include members of the authority which might or might not include local authority members. The new set-up under the order will ensure that all county and district councils will have a representative on the proposed local consumer advisory committees; so that local experience and knowledge would be brought to bear, we think, in the right place.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady White, about the English dimension that the noble Baroness referred to the present set-up of the Welsh Water Authority as being in a way a pseudo-democracy. I think it is fair to say that the system has nothing to do with personalities or the way in which functions are discharged by local authority representatives. But the system of the present Welsh Water Authority makes it almost impossible for the local authority representatives, with the best will in the world, to represent the wishes and needs of consumers.

I repeat the tribute which I paid to local authority members who contributed to the setting up of the Welsh Water Authority that we believe the true role for the councillor is to provide the vital link between the new authority and the people living at the local level. That is why my right honourable friend has confirmed that each county and district council within the Welsh Water Authority area will, I repeat, be represented on the proposed local consumer advisory committees. It is in that way, we believe, that local interests can be safeguarded and where local knowledge and experience can be effectively applied. In considering, therefore, the effect on local authorities of this order (if Parliament approves it), the most important point is that every district and county will be represented on the advisory committees.

My right honourable friend wrote to Mr. Alec Jones, MP, on 11th December about the guidelines for the functioning of these consumer advisory committees. My noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford said that consumer committees have been bodies which have not always had the easiest passage or the most satisfactory results. I think it is clear from the communication sent by my right honourable friend, and the new committees arc envisaged as having proper secretarial support and technical and professional advice supplied by the new authority and that there would be clear advice on the arrangements for access to the water authority by these consumer committees and for liaison between their chairmen and the central authority.

Finally, my Lords, I come to the point put forward by all those speakers deeply concerned with water interests but perhaps not, at first hand, with Welsh interests: namely, is this not precipitate; will it not, as my noble friend Lord Ridley said, really pre-empt a decision of the Secretary of State for the Environment? While my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for the Environment have both been anxious to proceed with proposals to provide more effective management for water authorities, the former has been able to proceed more quickly by virtue of the feature which distinguishes the constitution of the Welsh Water Authority from those of regional water authorities—in other words, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales can proceed by order and does not need primary legislation. My right honourable friend, having been reinforced in his views, by the recommendation of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in respect of the Severn/Trent Water Authority, concluded that he should seek to put his proposals into effect to coincide with the retirement of the current chairman next year; and he did this with the agreement of his Government colleagues.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will shortly be issuing a consultation document on the membership of the regional water authorities. I give two assurances to your Lordships. The first is one that I have already given; which is that I will draw to his attention what has been said today and will do so urgently; and, secondly, I can give the assurance that the proposals of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will not be prejudiced by the outcome of today's debate. I realise that, in replying to this short debate, I shall have not have given satisfaction to many of your Lordships as regards the questions that you have asked. But I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales has taken the interests of the local authorities carefully into account. He gave opportunities for representations and responded to them. I ask your Lordships to approve the order.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he tell the House what length of consultation period the Secretary of State for the Environment has, on the basis of his consultation paper?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer that question because of course the paper has not been published.

On Question, Motion agreed to.