HL Deb 21 April 1983 vol 441 cc644-8

3.27 p.m.

Read a third time with the amendments.

Clause 5 [Overseas activities of water authorities and statutory water companies]:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 1: Page 5, line 7, leave out ("from time to time").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I beg to move Amendment No. 1. We added subsection (5) to clause 5 of the Bill at the Report stage. The effect of subsection (5) is to require the Secretary of State to issue guidance as to the criteria by reference to which he will grant consents for overseas work by water authorities and companies. In moving this amendment, I emphasised that we did not envisage frequent revisions of the guidance. I undertook that any proposed changes to the guidance would, as a matter of course, be preceded by full consultation with the interests concerned, and in particular with the water authorities and the consultant engineers. I also said that we would make a small amendment to our amendment to underline this point.

There was concern that the words "from time to time" implied a frequent process. We wish to respond sympathetically to that concern. Without the words in question it will still be possible to make changes to the guidance, but we certainly do not wish to imply that this will be a regular or frequent event. So we are happy to improve the Bill by bringing forward this small amendment. My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for introducing this amendment. The words "from time to time", which were originally put forward by the Government, were attacked by me at earlier stages of the Bill as indicating that the Government might be amending the guidance notices rather frequently. But the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has given the House an assurance that, if any amendments of the guidance notices which have been recently agreed are necessary, there will be full consultation with the water authorities, with the departments and with the public and private sectors.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Arrangements for carrying out Sewerage Functions.]:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 2: Page 18, line 18, leave out ("this Act") and insert ("the Water Act 1983").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 2, which corrects a small mistake in the Bill. Schedule 3 takes the form of a new schedule to the Water Act 1973. Where it refers, therefore, to "this Act" it refers to the Water Act 1973. The reference in paragraph 8, however, should be to the present Bill, not the 1973 Act, and that is the effect of the amendment. My Lords, I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. This is not a long Bill, but I think it can fairly be said that it has received the usual thorough and careful consideration from your Lordships. We have tried, as always, to present the Bill with an open mind and to respond positively to the points that have been put to us in debate. In turn, I should like to express my appreciation for the constructive spirit in which your Lordships have handled the Bill. We have been able to take on board many of the comments and suggestions which your Lordships have made, and I am sure that, in consequence, the Bill will leave your Lordships' House a better measure than when I first introduced it.

The overall objectives and the overall shape of this Bill remain as the Government always intended. Our object, as I said at Second Reading, is to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the water authorities. That is why we are introducing the new small boards and the new consumer arrangements; that is why we are dissolving the National Water Council and the Water/Space Amenity Commission; and that is why we are introducing new arrangements for carrying out sewerage functions. On the last of these, it was an amendment made at Report stage last week which gave effect to the Government's intentions following a period of consultation and subsequent discussion with interested parties, including Members of your Lordships' House, to refine our proposals and to make sure that they were right. I am, indeed, grateful to my noble friend Lord Sandford, to the noble Baroness, Lady White, to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and to others of your Lordships for the detailed attention which they gave to this matter, and I am confident that, in this respect, we send the Bill back to the other place in the knowledge that it will lead to more efficient sewerage arrangements and to arrangements which take proper account of the interests of various parties.

We were convinced by the arguments we heard that it was not right to end any part of the jurisdiction of the local ombudsman over water authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Serota, put this case most convincingly, and it was widely supported by the House. I am pleased that we were able to meet the wishes of your Lordships in this respect. The protection of the consumers' interests is a vital part of our approach in this Bill, and we felt on further consideration that it would not be right to limit the ombudsman's powers in any way.

We were not able to accept a number of the other changes which some of your Lordships would have had us make to Clause 1. In particular, we could not agree to writing into the Bill the provision for local authority members; nor could we agree to the proposal for conservation and recreation members, or that the press and public should have the right to attend water authority meetings. All of those proposals would, in our view, have undermined the Bill in significant respects. Nevertheless, we did provide assurances on each of these points.

In particular, we agreed that there should be members from local government; we accepted that conservation and recreation were matters relevant to the functions of water authorities, and said that experience in these areas would be taken into account when we make appointments; and we undertook that there should be press conferences after water authority meetings and that the new consumer consultative committees should be open to press and public. Prompted by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, we were able to clarify through an amendment to Clause 1 the appointment of land drainage and fishery members to the Welsh water authority, and I am grateful to him.

On the consumer arrangements, Clause 7, we have agreed to a number of changes to the guidelines to meet concern expressed by the public, in the other place and by your Lordships. As these have been debated so recently, I will not go over them again, but I would express my thanks once more to my noble friend Lord Sandford; to the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, who was so tenacious on this as on so many other matters; and to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for the help which they have given us in the understanding of these issues and the clarification which we have sought to put before your Lordships.

I must also add my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn for the important amendment which he brought forward, providing that the guidelines should be laid before both Houses of Parliament. We accepted that this provided an important strengthening of the guidelines, and an amendment has now been incorporated in the Bill, which I think is a significant improvement. May I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for his usual knowledgeable and constructive contributions on conservation aspects.

We are also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran and Lord Howie of Troon, for the debates which we had on Clause 5—the overseas activities of water authorities and companies. It was as a result of those debates that we have written into Clause 5 a specific reference to the revised guidance we have drawn up in agreement with representatives of the consulting engineers and the water authorities. This guidance will indicate the way the Secretary of State will exercise his consent powers under Clause 5, and in the course of our debates I think we were able to allay the fears of your Lordships that we were enabling the water authorities to set up in competition with the private sector. The key to our approach is co-operation between public and private sectors. That is the purpose of Clause 5, and we believe that it will lead to a significant improvement in our export performance in this most important field.

We had an important debate about arbitration procedures over terms and conditions of employment in the water industry. That debate took place shortly after a most tragic and, many would feel, unnecessary industrial dispute. My noble friend Lord Nugent spoke so effectively on the effects of this dispute, and in moving his own amendment provoked one of the most interesting debates on the whole Bill. May I also pay particular tribute to the other contributions made by my noble friend Lord Nugent on many other points which arose during the course of the Bill. His own experience makes him uniquely qualified to comment on water industry affairs, and I say again that we are deeply grateful to him.

I do not want to delay the Bill's passage a moment longer. I would, therefore, conclude by thanking my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for his great help and support to me throughout the various stages of the Bill. He has dealt with substantial parts of it, and has done so in a most able and effective manner. Finally, I thank your Lordships once more for the careful and constructive way in which you have dealt with the Bill over recent weeks. I now formally move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Bellwin.)

3.39 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, if I remember correctly, the Bill had its Second Reading in this House without any support for the Government. I do not think there was a noble Lord or Baroness in this House who stood up and gave any support to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. But it is true to say that, as we went through the Committee stage, we were able, as the noble Lord said, to make some very substantial amendments to the Bill. It was very pleasing to hear the noble Lord's thanks to my noble friend Lady Serota, who raised a most important point about the ombudsman. We can also congratulate ourselves that guidelines are being laid down for the consumer consultative councils. As this is the only democratic part of the Bill which is left, we welcome these guidelines.

Although we began with no supporters, I should not like the Government to believe that the Bill has been readily accepted by all sides of the House. During the past week there have been two very close votes. The Division on one amendment was lost by only about six votes. The Division on the other amendment was lost by, I believe, two votes. Therefore, during the last stages of the Bill before it goes back to the other place the House has shown its disapproval of some of the measures contained in it.

The Bill changes completely the central body of the water industry. We understand that it will be a very much smaller body. As the Bill leaves us, it is not perfectly clear where the many statutory responsibilities of the water council will finally rest. The new water authorities will quickly have to resolve the uncertainty about the future of the employees of the water council. Several hundred employees are in limbo; they do not know where their future lies. I would ask the Government to make quite sure that their future becomes a priority issue.

In our discussions we have heard about local government representation. Assurances and pledges have been given to us. I believe that on one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that he would stick to his assurance that there would be local government representation on the new water authorities. We are very disappointed that the Government will not write this into the Bill. Therefore, we hope that these pledges and assurances will be honoured. There is only a Government assurance. It has no standing in law because it is not written into the Bill. It is important, therefore, that when assurances and pledges are given they are honoured.

I thank the noble Lord for his remarks regarding me and my noble friends. We did not welcome the Bill. We are not sending it back to the Commons with any great enthusiasm. We shall watch carefully how the new water authorities live up to their image of super-efficient bodies. They will have to demonstrate that they will be able to give much better value for money than was given in the past by the old water authorities. Their greater efficiency has got to be proved to us. Greater efficiency is very difficult to prove in times of drought.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I do not think that this is the occasion to spend a great deal of time on speeches. We have discussed very thoroughly the details of the Bill and we have made some notable improvements. We on these Benches have not changed our view that this is a misconceived Bill and that a system which operates as part of the rating system, without democratic representation, is bad in principle. However, we in your Lordships' House have made the best of it. With the help of the Government we have reinstated the power of the ombudsman. We look forward with a great deal of interest, and maybe with a little doubt, to what the consumer consultative councils will do. There is absolutely no doubt that, apart from the major point of the principle of the Bill, the Government have been as helpful as they could be. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, and to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for meeting us on a number of matters. I wish that they could have met us on more, but undoubtedly they went as far as they could without betraying the unfortunately misconceived basic principle of the Bill. It is a pity that we could not do more, but what we have done has been worth doing.

Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.