HL Deb 12 April 1983 vol 441 cc122-31

4.29 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, before we receive the Report, I wonder whether the Government can give any indication of future business in view of the vote taken on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, earlier?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am sure that the business management of the House, in the conduct of which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, is such a distinguished member, will decide that before very long, and that a statement will be made.

I beg to move that this Report be now received.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to: Report received.

Clause 1 [Constitution and procedure of water authorities]:

Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 15, at end insert ("of whom not fewer than two and not more than four shall be appointed from among persons duly elected as members of local authorities (as defined in section 38 of the principal Act) within the water authority's area and nominated by those local authorities.")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1 I will try not to go over the ground that was so adequately covered at Committee stage, but I think it is important that one should remind noble Lords of the thoughts behind the reframing of the amendment. I must say that on this side of the House we are sorry and very disappointed that the Minister was not able to find it possible to take any action, or even to suggest the mechanics that would be desirable, to make possible what we wanted to achieve. I would say at the beginning that my noble friend Lady Nicol, who very ably moved this amendment at Committee stage, unfortunately cannot be with us this afternoon because she was taken ill last evening and is confined to bed in a hotel. For that reason I feel that I should remind the House of the points she drew to the attention of the Committee.

We had assurances from the Minister in this House, and assurances were also given in the other place, that there would be between two and four members of local authorities appointed to the regional water authorities. In the other place on 16th November 1982 the Minister said: It is proposed that there should be executive members on the executive authority and that it should include local authority members." [Col. 152.] So already in the other place it was decided that there would be a number of local authority members on the water authorities. Then we come to 7th February in this House. When the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, was introducing the Second Reading, he said: we propose that county and district councils will have the opportunity to nominate people for at least two appointments to the new boards." [Col. 993.]

That is what we are asking for in the amendment: the opportunity to nominate not fewer than two and not more than four. So all we are doing in this amendment is writing into the Bill what has already been agreed at ministerial level.

The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, when he spoke at Second Reading, said that he was sympathetic to our point of view, but he went on to the problems and difficulties. Nevertheless, he did say on 24th February: However, we have made it clear—I gladly repeat—that county and district councils will be invited to nominate people for some of the appointments. I say it again—of between two and four members of each authority depending on the size. I reiterate that pledge gladly." [Col. 864.] All we are asking is that the pledge should be reiterated and written into the Bill. If one gives a pledge at the Dispatch Box I should have thought that some consideration had been given to it before a commitment of that description was given. It is no good saying desirable things and not writing them into the Bill, because to say that something will be the intention of the Government means nothing at all. We have had that so many times in this House. I think Lord Simon said at one stage that it was important that you write down what you intend, that you write it in simple terms so that it is interpreted in the way that you wish it to be acted upon, and that you cannot, when looking at Acts of Parliament, interpret the spirit of what was behind the intention of a Government. While the Government have said what they mean to be the spirit behind it and have made comments from the Dispatch Box, we say that that pledge that was given to us should be written into the Bill.

I am not going to keep the House long, because we had a long debate on this subject on the previous occasion. I would remind noble Lords that on this side of the House we were prepared at Committee stage to divide on this issue, and if we had divided we would have had great support from all sides of the Committee. As your Lordships will see, the amendment is in my name as a Vice-President of the AMA, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, President of the Association of District Councils, in the name of Lord Evans of Claughton, of the Liberal Party, and in the name of Viscount Ridley, President of the ACC. So it has all-party support and the support of all the local authorities. It is important to remind your Lordships that we did intend to divide on this issue. We are most disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to honour the pledges given to us at Second Reading. Therefore, in moving the amendment I must say that unless we get a very satisfactory answer from the Minister, it is our intention to divide on this issue.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Baroness. I agree with her that it is not necessary to say a great deal more because this is the same amendment that was debated very thoroughly at Committee stage. It is a matter of considerable concern to the local authority associations. My noble friend Lord Ridley, whose name is on the amendment, asked me to apologise to the House for not being here to join in the debate.

The fact of the matter is that almost all the services with which we are now concerned—water supply, sewerage, building of sewage plants, building of reservoirs—originated in local government. At the moment the regional water authorities are operating, and they are accountable to the public and to their consumers via a majority of local authority representatives on each of the regional water authorities. The Government do have a case, and they have deployed it well, for saying that that system of accountability and majority government, relying in each water authority on a majority of elected authority members, has not worked as well as was intended.

But we cannot go from that situation to the situation that we are in now, where there is nothing whatever in the Bill to secure the presence on any board of any of the regional water authorities of any elected member of any local authority at all. This is an absurd situation to be in in respect of the drafting of the Bill, when Ministers have over and over again given us their assurances that there will be between two and four members of elected authorities and that the authorities will be able to nominate people from which the Secretary of State may make his selection. The amendment incorporates and encapsulates nothing but assurances that have already been given to both Houses of Parliament by Ministers. But I submit to the House that Parliament cannot in an important matter like this rest solely on the assurance of Ministers. We are here to legislate and we must get the essential features of the legislation into the Bill.

If I may say so in defence of my noble friend, the assurances that he gave us were assurances that he would reconsider the whole matter and use his utmost endeavours to reflect the wishes of the House to his colleagues. I personally am satisfied that he will by now have done that. But the fact of the matter is that he has not persuaded the collective Government to change their mind. Therefore, I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, that it seems likely that we shall be left with no option but to press the amendment to a Division.

4.41 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I rise to support this amendment. It was not only what the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said in Committee but the tone in which he said it. I am absolutely certain, as my noble friend Lord Sandford said, that he represented the views of the House as strongly as he possibly could to his ministerial colleagues. But because of his tone and because of what he said, I was one of those who was, I think, instrumental in helping to persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and her colleagues not to press the matter the last time in Committee to a Division. I did that because I genuinely felt that we were getting a long way with what my noble friend Lord Bellwin had said, and above all, from the tone—the total and complete sincerity—in which he said it. He is a sincere man, so there is no question of criticism on that.

However, it is most unfortunate that there seems to be nothing forthcoming from Her Majesty's present advisers. In those circumstances, even if the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, were prepared to withdraw her amendment, I should personally like to press it. I think that local authority representation on water boards is very important indeed. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and my noble friends Lord Sandford and Lord Ridley have my fullest support.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I very briefly apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Evans of Claughton on this occasion. He hoped to be here. He is chairing an important meeting, I believe somewhere in the Palace, and is unable to be here. I merely want to say that, having heard the mover of the Motion and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, I entirely agree on behalf of members of the Liberal Party with what has been said.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, just before my noble friend speaks, I should like to say one word in support of what he said at Committee. He said: It is our intention that there will be a local government representation … of between two and four members … depending on the size. I reiterate that pledge gladly". That is where everybody seems to have stopped, but he went on to say: it would be wrong to tie the Secretary of State's hands … All the appointments are made by the Secretary of State and he cannot yield up his right to appoint, either to local authorities or to other bodies".—[Official Report, 24/2/83; col. 864.]. The amendment is exactly the same as it was at Committee and it has exactly the same flaw within it.

I should have thought that you really have to size this up as to whether it is right that, if you are agreeing that the Secretary of State makes appointments, you then in legislation undermine that by giving authority to other people to make some of the appointments for him. I should have thought that what my noble friend said last time was perfectly straightforward. I would expect that what he may well say now would be something very similar. I think that it would be wrong to take this matter to a Division. I think that the amendment itself is defective for the purpose which it seeks to achieve.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, may I say first of all that I am sorry to hear that the noble baroness, Lady Nicol, is ill. I hope that she is not very ill and will soon be back.

I think that I ought to take up the comment that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, made when she said that the Government have not honoured pledges given in Committee. She must not say that I gave pledges at Committee as to what I would be bringing forward at this Report stage. I want to repeat what I said. The Government have made a repeated commitment—there is no going back one inch on that at all—that between two and four members of the reconstituted water authorites should be people from local government and that the local authorities in the area should have the opportunity to make nominations for these places. I said that then and I say it again. There is no going back on that. But what I did not do is give a pledge at the time as to precisely what the Government would do about the Bill.

I think that one has to be very careful about this aspect. One is often asked to consider matters. When I say that I will consider them, I do not say it lightly. I would rather not say it at all; but if I say that I will consider a matter, it means that I will take it away and discuss it with colleagues. I mean to do that, and that is exactly what I do. I am sure that the noble Baroness will concede that to me, as I hope will other noble Lords. What I cannot promise always is what I can come forward with, or that we shall always believe it right to change a line that we are taking.

I am advised that the House is to be divided, but even so I think it proper that I should say again what the position is so that there should be no doubts so far as the record is concerned. I think that we must keep in our minds the underlying intention of Clause 1. The purpose of the clause, as we are all by now well aware, is to transform the membership of the water authorities from a system in which at the present time most members are appointed by local authorities to a system in which all are appointed by Ministers; from a system which is not efficient to one which improves decision-making and clarifies the accountability of the authorities to Ministers and to Parliament on the one hand and, through the new consumer arrangements we are introducing, to the public on the other.

We have accepted the point of the two to four members in recognition of the historical and functional links existing between the water industry and local government, but we have not made any comparable pledges to any other interested parties in respect of any of the other places on the new boards. This is a key point which I must emphasise. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and others who have spoken, will know the great pressure under which we have come, and will doubtless come yet again before this day is out, to do just that. But the fact is that we have not made such pledges. I think that there is every significance in that.

Under present arrangements, as I have said, efforts have been made to secure representation from the CBI, the trade unions, the commercial sector, recreationalists, conservationists, and so on. There have been amendments in the course of this Bill which would have forced us to continue to make appointments from those areas. We have resisted them, not because we think that those interests are less relevant than hitherto—not at all—but because in our view the primary qualification for membership of a water authority must be the effective contribution which can be made to the management of a large undertaking—I shall return to this in a moment—and for two other main reasons.

The first is that the number of members, reduced as it is to between nine and 15, simply precludes allocating places to particular interest groups, even if that were desirable; and, secondly, because in our view the input which the various interests I have listed can make should come through the new consumer arrangements which we are establishing under Clause 7. So, for example, we have not said that there should be a place on the board for an industrialist, or a recreationist, or any of the others whom I have mentioned. Yet we have agreed that there should be between two and four local authority members, and thus we are singling out local authorities in a very special way.

I shall not go into greater detail on some of the matters, but I think that I should touch on the point that what we say is the intention should be written on the face of the Bill. As your Lordships are aware, we attach high importance to the appointment of executive members to the water authorities. In our view those who are responsible for key policy areas in the water authorities—for instance, the chief executive and the director of finance—must in future be members of the authority, and thus accept full collective responsibility for their actions. That has been stated frequently, and I gladly repeat it today because I think that it is important. But I would point out that we have not thought it necessary to legislate on this matter. There is no requirement written in the Bill that we should make these appointments. What the Bill states—and this applies to all the members—is that they must comply with the overall requirement of skill and experience, and, important though they may be, other matters are secondary to that requirement.

There are other serious problems about the present amendment. So far as we can ascertain, what it proposes has not been precedented in any of the nationalised industries with which water authorities might be compared. It has not been precedented in area electricity boards, or the Gas Corporation, even though both of those industries have historical links with local government in many ways comparable with those of the water industry. By making the commitment that we have made we are going beyond the arrangements in the gas and the electricity industries—indeed, a good deal beyond them—but we can see no reason for going yet further and introducing unprecedented provisions into legislation such as this.

In addition, as your Lordships know, it is our intention to appoint people for fixed terms. The amendment would require us to write in the two to four local government appointees, and it specifies that those appointed should be elected members of local authorities. We do not think that we should tie the local authorities' hands in this way. They may have in mind very competent people who are no longer members of local authorities but whom they would wish to suggest to us for appointment; and indeed already we have had from a local authority one nomination of someone who in May will be standing down from membership of his council. Moreover the fixed term is an important element. Members must know that they have a reasonable period to serve, during which they can carry out the tasks that they may set for themselves without the vagaries of losing their places if they lose their seats on the local authority.

There are other awkwardnesses, some of which I touched on at Committee stage. To construct an amendment which would meet your Lordships' wishes that we write something into the Bill, and which would nevertheless meet the Secretary of State's requirement that he should appoint the members and should have a right to reject any of those who might be suggested, would be a cumbersome business. We should need to define in close terms those who were to make the nominations, and how many they should nominate so as to give the Secretary of State a choice. That would not necessarily be straightforward. In addition, we should have to define some process for rejecting all the nominations, or asking for more if the Secretary of State was not satisfied that those suggested would meet his overall requirements for the authority. Your Lordships might say that it could be left to the Secretary of State as to whether or not he appoints any of the nominees, but, with respect, I must say that that would not appear to meet what your Lordships have been pressing for in earlier debates.

Those and other technical difficulties I mention merely to indicate that drafting an amendment is not a simple matter. However, for the reasons that I have indicated, we do not think it appropriate to legislate on this question. The local authorities should recognise that they are being placed in a privileged position compared with all the other interested parties. Not only will they have the exclusive right to nominate a member for the consumer consultative committees, but they alone will have the right to make nominations to membership of the water authorities themselves, with a clear undertaking—I state yet again—that between two and four local government members will be appointed.

I am sorry that I cannot go farther than that. However, I hope that I shall be allowed to take up a point that I made when we were discussing the matter raised earlier by my noble friend Lord Sandford; namely, the extent to which the Government have been flexible in regard to the Bill. We really have tried to give proper consideration to what has been put forward from the Opposition and from my own noble friends, and we have been willing to be flexible. However, on this matter we feel that there are the difficulties that I have mentioned, though it seems that your Lordships feel that there must be a Division. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Onslow felt that not only what I said on the previous occasion but the tone in which I said it, persuaded him in regard to a Division. I suppose that that underlines one of the reasons why I come here and speak for the Government on these matters. As he said, I always speak sincerely, and he knows that I shall never speak in any other way. However, your Lordships yourselves must reach a conclusion.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, before the House divides, I should like to refer to what the Minister has said; and I have read what he said in Committee. Unfortunately I was not present on the first day of the Committee stage. I am bothered and bewildered, but certainly not bewitched. The Minister makes it quite clear that county and district councils will be invited to nominate people for some of the appointments. He has again repeated that there is no question but that there will be local government members on the bodies, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, said, he went on to say that he believed that it would be wrong to tie the Secretary of State's hands by legislation in the way that the amendment proposes.

However, the fact remains that despite what the Minister said previously, as well as today, on the face of the Bill there is no reference whatsoever to any local government members being members of the water authorities; there is no such reference at all. We all know that once a Bill has been passed and it becomes a statute, reference to Hansard is not allowed to the courts. What is stated in Hansard may be of interest, but it has no validity at all if set against what is in fact in the Bill. It seems to me that the matter is quite simple and that there should not be any great difficulty in the Government's coming forward with an amendment which would cover the points that have been made by the Minister, which would give the Secretary of State a free hand, and which would enable the local authorities to nominate people. A great many nominations might be sent in, and so it would not be a question of choosing one person from a small pool. This kind of thing happens in relation to so many bodies, and it could be written into the Bill that it would be left to the Secretary of State.

We do not know how long a particular Secretary of State will remain in office. We do not know when there is to be a change of Government. We are left with a Bill which contains no reference at all to local authority members. I, too, speak as a vice-president of the AMA, and all of us concerned with local government feel that it cannot be beyond the wit of either the Minister or the department to devise a bridging amendment which would cover his objections as well as the points which my colleagues and I regard as essential.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has perhaps not been able to convince his colleagues. He pointed out that it is very difficult to write into the Bill actual numbers in relation to people appointed, but I would point out that the next but one amendment that we are to discuss refers quite clearly to "at least two members" whom the Secretary of State will want to appoint because they have experience of land drainage or fisheries. No doubt people who have experience of land drainage or fisheries are important people. They are not people I would normally bump into, though no doubt they are very important people; but I would not say that they are any more important than local authority representatives, who have been democratically elected.

The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said that he was not going to write the point into the Bill, and I should like to remind him of what he said at the Committee stage. It had to do with the MAFF. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said: We have already gone as far as we think is right on that point. As I say, there will be two people for MAFF, two for local government and there will, of course, have to be a chairman". [Official Report, 24/2/83; col. 861.]. I do not know whether, in the case of the Welsh water authority, at least two members to be written into the Bill are MAFF people or not. As a city person, I am perhaps not so well aware of the position. However, if it is possible to write in two members for one group of people, I do not see what argument the Minister can deploy for saying that two people representing another group of people cannot be written in, especially when the two, or the four, local government representatives will be representatives of the total population of the country. They are not people in land drainage and fisheries, who will be representing a very small percentage of the population.

When the Minister talks about the privileged position of local authority representatives in sitting on consumer consultative committees, one has the impression that it is a privilege to serve on the water authority. These are positions that have been held since re-organisation. I do not believe there has been any real criticism that local authority representatives have made the water authorities less efficient. I know that the Minister has to give a reply of some description, but it is hardly convincing when in the next amendment he proposes to do exactly the same as we ask in this amendment; that is, to define numbers in the Bill. We intend to divide on this issue.

5.2 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 99; Not-Contents, 101.

Amherst, E. Gregson, L.
Ardwick, L. Hanworth, V.
Aylestone, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Balogh, L. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Banks, L. Hemingford, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Beswick, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Birk, B. Hunt, L.
Bishopston, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Blease, L. Ilchester, E.
Blyton, L. Irving of Dartford, L.
Boothby, L. Jacques, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Jeger, B.
Briginshaw, L. John-Mackie, L.
Brockway, L. Kagan, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Kennet, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Kirkhill, L.
Caradon, L. Leatherland, L.
Chitnis, L. Lee of Newton, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Listowel, E.
Clifford of Chudleigh, L. Lloyd of Hampstead, L.
Collison, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. [Teller.]
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L.
David, B. Lockwood, B.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Longford, E.
Donnet of Balgay, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Elystan-Morgan, L. Melchett, L.
Evans of Claughton, L. Minto, E.
Ewart-Biggs, L. Mishcon, L.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Molloy, L.
Gaitskell, B. Northfield, L.
Gallacher, L. Ogmore, L.
Gladwyn, L. Onslow, E.
Glenamara, L. Oram, L.
Gormley, L. Peart, L.
Phillips, B. Strabolgi, L.
Pitt of Hampstead, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.] Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Underhill, L.
Prys-Davies, L. Vickers, L.
Rochester, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Ross of Marnock, L. Walston, L.
Rugby, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Sainsbury, L. Whaddon, L.
Sandford, L. White, B.
Serota, B. Wigoder, L.
Shackleton, L. Winstanley, L.
Stamp, L. Winterbottom, L.
Stewart of Alvechurch, B. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Stewart of Fulham, L.
Adeane, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Lyell, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. McFadzean, L.
Allerton, L. Malmesbury, L.
Avon, E. Mancroft, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Mansfield, E.
Bellwin, L. Mar, C.
Beloff, L. Margadale, L.
Belstead, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Bessborough, E. Merrivale, L.
Cairns, E. Mersey, V.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Milverton, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Cathcart, E. Mottistone, L.
Chelwood, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Northchurch, B.
Cork and Orrery, E. Orkney, E.
Cottesloe, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Rankeillour, L.
Daventry, V. Rawlinson of Ewell, L.
Davidson, V. Renton, L.
De La Warr, E. Rochdale, V.
Denham, L. Romney, E.
Dilhorne, V. St. Aldwyn, E.
Drumalbyn, L. St. Davids, V.
Ebbisham, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Ellenborough, L. Saint Oswald, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Salisbury, M.
Elton, L. Sandys, L.
Ferrers, E. Sempill, Ly.
Fortescue, E. Sharples, B.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Sherfield, L.
Gainford, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Somers, L.
Glanusk, L. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Glenarthur, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Glenkinglas, L, Strathspey, L.
Gridley, L. Swansea, L.
Halsbury, E. Swinfen, L.
Harvington, L. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Henley, L. Terrington, L.
Hives, L. Teynham, L.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Ingrow, L Thorneycroft, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Trefgarne, L.
Kitchener, E. Trumpington, B.
Lane-Fox, B. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Lauderdale, E. Vivian, L.
Lawrence, L. Westbury, L.
Long, V. [Teller.] Wise, L.
Loudoun, C.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.