§ 5.12 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bellwin.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD DERWENT in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Constitution and procedure of water authorities]:
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 1, line 12, leave out ("two") and insert ("not less than two nor more than three").
§ The noble Lord said: At this stage and on this particular amendment, I am looking for helpful answers from my noble friend rather than attempting 857 to divide the Committee. Under existing legislation, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may appoint two to four members of the board of a water authority, depending on the size of the particular authority. This represents between 18 per cent. and 28 per cent. and only in one case, that of Thames, is the percentage less than 20 per cent. Thames water is rather different from others, in that it flows through the greatest concentration of population, and I would accept as a farmer our obligations to that population and so concede less representation on that particular authority.
§ For reasons which I hope my noble friend will explain, under this Bill only two members may be appointed by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which would mean that the agricultural representation on a 9-member board would be around 22 per cent.—similar to but perhaps on the whole less than under existing legislation—whereas on a 15-member board the representation would drop to around 15 per cent. I ask my noble friend why so? Are the Government saying that the relationship between agriculture and water has suddenly altered? I was not aware of it. It seemed to rain last year just as much as it did before and it was dry just as much as it was before and we need our drainage just as much as before. Perhaps my noble friend has some awesome talent to direct the water on to the towns when we do not want it and then back to us when we do. Perhaps when he replies he will be able to give me the reasons for this apparent disregard of agriculture's vital role in water management.
§ My amendment would correct this injustice by giving the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food power to appoint two or three members to a water board. It would not be necessary for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to take up this option. He probably would not do so, for instance, on a 9–member board; and, in any case, he would do it in consultation with the Secretary of State. As my noble friend knows, this cut in the appointments by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be even more extreme than I pointed out in authorities like Severn-Trent and Anglia where the number representing agriculture will be dropped to one from three members.
§ As the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, is in the Chamber at the moment, perhaps I could say one thing with regard to his Second Reading speech. In that, he accused me of being a pillar of the Tory party—which I hope I am; although I do not know that my noble friend on the Front Bench would always agree—but, in particular, he accused the National Farmers' Union of being the right arm of the Conservative Party. I must make it quite clear to the noble Lord and to the Committee that the National Farmers' Union represents farmers regardless of their party. I am sure that the party opposite would agree if the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, were there that we work as well with the Socialist Party as with the Conservative Party. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
Perhaps it would be helpful if I explain the reasons why the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is being given the power to appoint members to water authorities and why we decided that 858 there should be two such members. The answer is quite simple—the water authorities are responsible for exercising two functions for which my right honourable friend the Minister has a statutory responsibility—namely, land drainage and fisheries. Indeed, Section 1(3) of the Water Act 1973 places upon the Minister a statutory obligation,to secure the effective execution",of his policies on land drainage and fisheries. In our view—and I emphasise that this is a Government view—that obligation can best be met at the management level in the water industry by appointing to each authority one member who has knowledge or experience of each of these matters.
Given the proposed size of the membership of the authorities, that is a fair representation. To increase it, would be to give those interests a disproportionate share of the available seats. I would also point out that there are four water authorities—Northumbrian, South West, Southern and Wessex—which already operate on the basis of two MAFF members. Of these, Southern and Wessex are both relatively important in terms of land drainage and all of them are regions with strong agricultural and fisheries interests. These authorities have operated very successfully on this basis, and we see no reason why the others should not do so in the future. On the other hand, it would be virtually impossible to find one person for each authority who is knowledgeable on both land drainage and fisheries. I have no doubt that a large number of farmers are also fishermen, but we are looking for a greater degree of expertise than that in making the appointments.
The fact that the catchment areas of water authorities comprise mainly farmland does not, in our view, constitute a good reason why farmers should be more heavily represented on the authorities. I would not be easy to maintain a strict mathematical proportion in numbers of members appointed from agriculture, land drainage and fisheries on boards which vary in size between nine and 15 members, and the Bill does not seek to do so. We have sought to preserve the principle that this representation should continue virtually unchanged, bearing in mind the reduced size of the boards. With nine to 15 members overall, agriculture is, I respectfully suggest, very well represented with two. I would remind the Committee that this matter was extensively debated in the other place at Committee stage, and also voted upon there. I have listened—as I always hope that I do—to what my noble friend says. He has far greater expertise and knowledge on these matters than I have. In trying to retain a balance, this seems to me to be right—not least bearing in mind the fact that the same two members will come from these very much reduced numbers on the boards.
§ Lord Sandys
I should like to support my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley. Although, as my noble friend Lord Bellwin has reminded the Committee, it was discussed in detail in Standing Committee B, there are a number of matters over which your Lordships may cast an eye in some greater detail. One of the principal items of course is the consequence of the disbanding of the National Water Council. But at the same time there is the continuing need for wider 859 consultation as a result and therefore the enhanced role of the chairman.
The second argument on which my noble friend Lord Bellwin cast doubt was the land drainage consideration. He did not feel that the river basin automatically gave agriculture a further degree of representation. But the whole aim of legislation over the past 10 years is to bring water authorities into the management of the whole river catchment area. For that reason I think that there is some advantage in looking at the role of agriculture in this particular field.
The question of numbers has been dealt with by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley in some detail. He mentioned Severn-Trent which at the present moment—as he rightly said—have four members. Anglian have four members and Southern have two. This amendment proposes that there should be either two or three, and this degree of manoeuvrability would be a very great advantage to both the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture because it is the management and the making of these appointments which is going to be so important in the future. This is not a single act of appointment, this is maintaining appointments over a considerable period—the life, presumably, of the Act of Parliament.
One can foresee circumstances very easily—and it is not necessary to go into those now—in which that opportunity of appointing either two or three members would be very useful, knowing circumstances which arise in making appointments. With that in mind, surely there could be no objection to writing this into the Bill as a degree of latitude. The fourth point concerns the major difficulty of getting the balance right and keeping it right. I have alluded to that.
The fifth point is the admitted conflict which there is in the statutory roles of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will know that considerable doubt was cast in this direction (and this can be seen at column 72 of Standing Committee B) where this has been admitted by Ministers, and his honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr. Shaw, said so at that point. There are arguments for considering this amendment and I wonder whether my noble friend would be willing to give this matter some further consideration.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Can my noble friend clear up one or two points on agricultural representation on water boards? As the Committee knows, I am a farmer and so I must declare an interest here. It seems sensible for the Minister of Agriculture to have this power to appoint. Does he agree that it is possible to argue that if one Minister of the Crown has power to appoint certain people to the board because of sectional interests, that will open the floodgates to everybody else?
§ Lord Melchett
May I ask the noble Lord a question about this matter? It seems to me, listening to what he said, that the Government's case was that the two representatives which the Bill will allow are there simply to put a point of view. One is there to put the agriculture/land drainage point of view; the other is there to put the fisheries point of view, although that is 860 not clear from the face of the Bill as I read it. That is what I took the noble Lord to be saying. That seems to me to contradict what he opened his speech with, which was the remark that these people, all of them on the water authority, are there to manage the responsibilities of the water authority.
If that is the case and if these two representatives which the Minister of Agriculture appoints are there to be responsible in particular for the management of land drainage and fisheries, then if the water authority doubles in size there is a reasonable case to be made for saying that the number of representatives with a particular interest in that part of the authority's management should also increase. I wonder whether the noble Lord can clear up my confusion between what he sees the roles of these people on the authority to be. He seemed to me to be saying two things at once.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
May I say a word to support my noble friend Lord Onslow? One of the difficulties, especially with a very small board like this, is to try to get the right balance in so far as anybody represents anything. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, makes a good point here: these people are there to manage the whole bag of tricks, not just to represent one particular interest. If an additional member of a board is to be brought in to represent agriculture or fisheries, then the case for all the other people—local government, industry, recreation, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all—is made out. No doubt before my noble friend Lord Bellwin has finished he will hear a lot about all this. He will have to enlarge his boards by about 10 times!
The fact is that a representative of each interest is what is needed because they are specialists. Not only that, but they have a function to perform then because they form their own committees for land drainage and fisheries in their respective regions. They also form them at national level, and this enables them to function in taking care in a national way of these very important matters. In concession to my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley may I say that one extra member is not—except as a point of honour—going to be much practical help. Heaven knows which one would attribute it to: whether it would be agriculture or fisheries. It would be a tug of war. The member would have to be cut in half. It is quite good to get one representative of each function on such a small board. I think that my noble friends ought to be content with that.
§ Lord Ardwick
I wonder whether the noble Lord could give a picture of a board as he visualises it. It would have one or two agriculturists, perhaps one or two executives from the water industry and a couple of people from local government. It would help me at a later stage of the discussion if we could have some kind of an idea of the rest—the other five or six members.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
I find that my noble friends are answering for me better than I can do. The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, puts the matter into context. What kind of people will there be on the boards? As my noble friend Lord Nugent rightly said, the record shows that there should be executives from 861 the authority—whether one or two members, I do not know. We do not want to say how many. It will depend on what they can contribute. We are absolutely committed to there being between two and four local authority members. Here we are talking of two representing MAFF. I would have thought, with my noble friend Lord Nugent, that in fact that was a pretty fair representation out of this small number.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, asks: in what capacity will they be there? I would say they will be there in the capacity as experts. It is felt that these people would have an expertise perhaps beyond that which one would normally expect to find from, if you like, lay people. We hope they will have managerial expertise, know-how and the capacity to make a contribution to all the matters pertaining to the working of a water board. They will not be there just to put a point of view, but to bring a certain expertise in their fields.
My noble friend Lord Onslow was so right when he said that if we project this through to its conclusion we would have to start to pick out all the various groups of people who might, not unreasonably in the circumstances, claim to have a right to be represented—not for themselves or even as nominees, but because they have a statutory representation.
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. I think we should be rather careful in trying to extend this. There could, for example, be a big argument made by some people who would question whether there should even be this amount of representation. But it is the old story which we get in regard to Bill after Bill. You try to get a balance of what you think is the right level; those with a special interest will think it is not enough, and others will think it is a bit too much. I think this is about the right level. My noble friends Lord Sandys and Lord Stanley know that we always think carefully about what is said in these debates. I cannot make commitments. I am bound to say that I think that, in the circumstances, we have gone as far as we can go on this. In the light of what has been said, I hope that my noble friends may feel able not press the amendment.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Could my noble friend just go a little further on the reason why MAFF are having this privilege? Surely there are larger users of water than the Ministry of Agriculture—the chemical and steel industries, for example, use much more water, and Kielder was built not for agricultural use but for industrial use in the Newcastle area. But water authorities have statutory duties to people other than the Ministry of Agriculture. I may say I am delighted about this representation, but I would just ask why it is that the Ministry of Agriculture is the only one, other than the possibility of public representatives—and that is a different matter, the question of accountability—to have this privilege.
§ Lord Bellwin
There you are. What did I tell you? The fact is that the functions of land drainage and fisheries are statutory obligations with statutory committees. That is why there are the two MAFF members.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
May I add just this, for the edification of my noble friend Lord Onslow: the land drainage function does extend from the rivers which the water authority manages to the farm. In the management of the river, the water authority is responsible for seeing that not only is the river running as it should, but that it is dredged and managed in such a way that the watercourses, part of which will also be the responsibility of the water authority, are kept clear so that the gradients from the farms draining the water actually from the fields will flow smoothly into them. So there is a direct practical link there which flows from the days when the river authorities were responsible for the management of land drainage. This was inherited by the water authorities and it is essential that there should be some direct link between the hoards of water authorities and the farming world. To some extent, it is the same in fisheries. The water authorities have a very good record here in the hatcheries they have set up to breed fish for stocking in order to improve the fisheries in the rivers. Once again there is a direct practical relationship there, and that is reflected in this particular constitution.
I think it is generously reflected, and I can well remember the history of the arguments in another place 10 years ago—I was not there but I heard all about them—which gave two members on each board, and sometimes more than two, for agriculture and fisheries against the many other interests who had good claims to be there. But there was a certain personality, who I am sorry to say is no longer with us, who fought a doughty battle for farmers in the 1922 Committee of the Conservative Party. He won his battles and as a result they got what they got; but the claims that my noble friends Lord Stanley and Lord Sandys are advancing are not as strong as all that, and I think they really ought to be content with two members on each board.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I thank my noble friend Lord Bellwin for the care and thought contained in his replies, and I am also grateful for the other replies that came from various parts of the Chamber. I do not agree with all of them, and particularly with some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. I would, of course, like more but I can appreciate the very valid points put forward by various speakers.
I accept that the whole purpose of the board is that the members should be active businessmen running an efficient board, rather than looking after any particular interest. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has correctly pointed out the importance of agriculture so far as land drainage and drainage as a whole are concerned. I would not agree that more members are not a help. I always find it helpful to have a friend in this Chamber and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, if he goes to a board meeting of whatever sort, too, would not mind having somebody there to give him a hand occasionally.
The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said that we had a disproportionate share—at least, if it was not my noble friend, somebody certainly said it. I do not really understand that. What the noble Lord did not fully explain is the fact that we have lost representation between the previous water authorities, where we had a 28 per cent. representation, to the proposal here. I do 863 not think he entirely grasped that point but I am sure that he will go away and think about that, just as I will go away and consider seriously what my noble friend and other members of the Committee have said.
There is just one thing I should like to draw to his attention: if we get two in nine and then we get only two in 15, one of those propositions must be wrong. I am suggesting to my noble friend that two in 15 is wrong and that it should be three in 15—it is simple arithmetic. I would say again to my noble friend that we are not asking for this third member, but just giving the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture flexibility, which I would have thought they would like.
My final point is that to have this strong representation would instill in the agricultural community confidence in their water authority. I think that is an important point. However, having listened to what has been said, I will go away and think about the matter very seriously. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 5.39 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol moved Amendment No. 2:
§ 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 within the water authority's area and nominated by those local authorities.")
§ The noble Baroness said: I understood that we were to discuss Amendment No.7 with this, is that not so? I wish to confine myself to Amendment No. 2 because that is the option of the two which I prefer. This is a very straightforward amendment. It is to write into the Bill the Government's declared intention. I will not rehearse again the need for local authorities to be represented on these bodies. That was done very clearly and from all sides of the House in the debate on 7th February. But perhaps I could just mention a letter which I have received within the last hour which comes from the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations. This is a union not normally associated with our side of the House, but it feels very deeply on this issue and has asked that I and others oppose the Bill, for reasons which we made clear earlier—that is, the undemocratic representation which the new water authorities will provide us with.
I should like to remind you Lordships of the Government's commitment to the local authority presence on the new water authorities. On 16th November 1982 in another place the then Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services said:
It is proposed that there should be executive members on the executive authority and that it should include local authority members".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/11/82; col. 152]
On 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".
And in winding up on that same day the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, went a little further when he said:
We have said—and I am prepared to stick to this tonight—that between two and four members will be the appropriate number, depending on the size of the board".—[Official Report, 7/2/82; cols. 993 and 1071.]
I was very encouraged to hear just a few minutes ago the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, reiterating this point.
§ All that this amendment seeks to do is to write this into the Bill and the noble Lord the Minister will need to explain very carefully, if he is not prepared to accept this, why he is not prepared to accept it. The reason it should be written into the Bill must be clear. Ministers change and so, eventually, do Governments and it is not at all certain that the next Minister or the next Government would be clear about the intention of the Bill. At this stage I do not propose to say any more. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
In speaking to the two Amendments, Nos. 2 and 7, the purpose, as has been said, is to write into the Bill the provision that the local authorities should have a right to a proportion of the membership of the new small boards. This runs counter to the approach which we have adopted in the Bill. We have not attempted in the legislation to hypothecate individual places to particular interest groups. The principle which we have put forward is that all appointees of the new boards should meet the primary qualification for membership which is that they must be able to make an effective contribution to the management of the industry.
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. The links between local government and the water industry make it desirable to do this. It is our intention that there will be a local government representation—I say it again—of between two and four members of each authority, depending on the size. I reiterate that pledge gladly.
However, we believe that it would be wrong to tie the Secretary of State's hands by legislation in the way the amendments propose to do. All the appointments are by the Secretary of State and he cannot yield up his right to appoint, either to the local authorities or to other bodies. The fact is that the noble Baroness's amendments would allow the local authorities to nominate only two members whom the Secretary of State would be obliged to appoint. This would make the local authorities de facto the appointing bodies. It is important to preserve the principle of the direct accountability of the Secretary of State to Parliament for all appointments. It would be at variance with this principle, and with the national industry practice, for the Secretary of State to be required to appoint people on the nomination of other bodies. However, local government has, as I have said, an important link with the water industry and we have clearly recognised that. It will be our responsibility, or the Secretary of State's responsibility, to ensure that those links are adequately reflected in the membership appointments which are made.
There are also other difficulties with the amendments as they stand. They do not place a duty on local authorities to make nominations. Neither, as I have said, do they specify the size of the field of nominations from which the Secretary of State would 865 make appointments, or whether the Secretary of State would be able to ask for further nominations if it was found that the nominations put forward initially were for any reasons unsuitable for appointment.
Moreover, the amendments would restrict local authorities' choice of nominee to elected members of the authorities. In most circumstances it would very likely be appropriate for the nominees of local authorities to be elected members. However, there may be cases where local authorities would wish to see the Secretary of State appoint people who are not currently elected members, but who nevertheless have particular skills or experience to offer to the water industry. Where this is so, we would not wish to stand in the local authorities' way.
There are particular difficulties with the amendment which has been tabled by my noble friend Lord Ridley. That would provide that only "a proportion" of the membership should be drawn from local authority nominees without specifying the size of that proportion. The amendment would empower the Secretary of State to appoint any proportion of the membership of the authorities from local government nominees. He could, for example, appoint a majority of the members from nominations put forward by the local authorities. This would mean returning to the present pattern of membership from which the Bill moves away. Equally, of course, under the amendment the Secretary of State would be entitled to appoint no more than one local government nominee to the board. As I have said, the Government's intention is to appoint between two and four members, depending on the size of the board in question. We believe that this level of representation will provide for proper recognition of the historical and functional links between the local authorities and the water industry.
In some ways this is slightly off the point that the noble Baroness was making when she said she was concerned about it being written into the legislation as opposed to it being an expressed intention. She says that Governments change and Ministers change. Indeed they do, and this is not the first time I have had this point made to me; it has been said when I have been dealing with other legislation. I hope that my replies are today as consistent as ever. The intention is, as I have said, that there are no grounds for really believing other than that they will be carried out. If one starts to write such details on the face of the Bill, I am open to correction here but I think there are many Members of your Lordships' House who would tell me that the practice is not normally to write into a Bill in this way because it loses a certain flexibility, which I think is very important. For all the reasons said, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel, if not satisfied, perhaps able to accept that there is another argument and perhaps not press her amendment.
§ Viscount Ridley
I hope that the noble Baroness will not withdraw her amendment because, as she has said, we are also debating Amendment No. 7 in my name and others. If I may refer to that amendment at the same time, that may assist the committee. The whole purpose of this amendment and a great many other amendments before us this afternoon is really to try to make these new water authorities more accountable to 866 the public which they serve. If nothing else has happened in the last four weeks, we have seen the need for the public to feel that they are involved in the very important water industry. The terrible time it has been through recently has shown to me, and I think all Members, that surely one of the many lessons to be learned is that these authorities must be accountable to the public which they serve. I do not think that this Bill, and the many amendments which seek to remedy this, go far enough.
One of the ways in which we do this is to see that at least a proportion of the members who are to be appointed are elected members—this is an important distinction, which was discussed at great length on Second Reading—and that these are not merely the Minister's nominees, because that is where confidence in these boards will go wrong. They will have been elected by local authorities. The Government have said on many occasions that they are committed to accepting these members, and I think they should put this into the Bill in no uncertain fashion, as has been so ably suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.
Amendment No. 7 provides a fall-back situation, whereby, if the Government felt disposed to accept it, it would mean that if a local authority failed to agree on names the Secretary of State should, quite correctly, step in. It is not an amendment which seems to appeal to my noble friend the Minister. I would only add that it was a Liberal amendment, which was moved in the other place, and if there are any Liberals who are not at the count in Bermondsey they might consider it.
It is all very well saying that the Secretary of State, who makes these appointments, is answerable or accountable to Parliament. But I should like to ask: when did Parliament appoint or dis-appoint the chairman of any authority? The Minister makes these appointments. So far as I know, he does not tell Parliament what he has done. He tells the person concerned. I do not remember, as a Member of the House, being told who had been appointed to a water authority or similar body. The Minister does it, quite rightly, and that is how it goes. But I do not think he should shelter behind the fact that he is answerable to Parliament. He is answerable only to himself, while he remains Secretary of State.
Another point is that on Second Reading my noble friend said that there had been no fewer than 131 members appointed over 10 years to the Thames Water Authority. At this time there are 62 members of that authority, so that amounts to two overall appointments for all that time. I should have thought that that was not an unreasonable rate of turnover in a large area, bearing in mind the fact that you need new people on it.
My final argument is much more devious and I hope that the Minister will see the strength of it at once. We shall come very shortly to a very important debate on the involvement of the ombudsman service in water authorities. One of the arguments which was put forward by the Minister, and which will no doubt be repeated tonight, is that the ombudsman no longer has a bearing, because local authorities no longer have direct representation on the authorities. I should like to turn this argument on its head, and say that, if we continue to have local authority members as of right, 867 my noble friend has no reason to avoid getting himself off the hook when we come to debate the ombudsman. I beg to support the amendment.
§ The Earl of Onslow
On the previous amendment we had a lucid and powerful argument put forward on special hypothecated places for special interests. I think most people in your Lordships' House agreed that it was a good thing that the Ministry of Agriculture should have those two members on the water authority. For the special interests of one industry to be represented by statutory right, and not people's local representatives, seems to me to be getting matters slightly upside down. My noble friend Lord Bellwin objected that the amendment was too narrow, because a local authority could nominate only two people, which would tie the hands of the Secretary of State to nominating those two who might be, in his view, totally unsuitable. But it is perfectly possible to redraft the amendment in such a way that local authorities will nominate six people, and the Minister will choose two, four or whatever the number is. That is an argument of the Civil Service, who have decided that they do not want to move, they want to get on with their own thing and they do not want any interference from the people's representatives. It is dangerous not to have people accountable to their elected representatives. I suppose that that comes well from a hereditary Peer, but we learned our lesson in 1911.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I should like to support the very able way in which my noble friend Lady Nicol moved this amendment. The amendment has the support of the three local authority associations. It carried the names of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, both of whom are presidents of local authority associations, and the AMA has as its representatives today my noble friend Lady Nicol and myself. So all three local authority associations are in favour of this amendment, but they are also concerned that the Government are showing such a lack of confidence in directly elected persons.
It appears to us to be another case of "Whitehall knows best". This is a serious reflection upon local, democratically elected people up and down the country, regardless of which party they represent. Therefore, I want to emphasise what other speakers have said. Without the local authority representatives, unless the Minister is giving way on the ombudsman and the press, there is no democratic element at all in the new water authorities.
I could show noble Lords a few of the letters that I have received in the last three days. These do not all come from the City of Birmingham—because they all know Doris Fisher. They come from Bradford in Yorkshire, from Edinburgh, from places in Surrey—real good Labour seats!—Weston-superMare, Harrogate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where we have a Labour seat, Clifton in Bristol, Market Drayton in Shropshire—all of them, without exception, expressing concern about the lack of democracy in this Bill. One of them is from a firm of solicitors. The people are all named and they say:A Bill such as this, providing for secrecy and absence of accountability in such an important area, is surely more appropriate for the Star Chamber of the 17th century, rather than the Houses of Parliament in the 20th century.".868 It is important for the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, to remember that he has been a very responsible and distinguished member of a local authority for a long period of time, so he understands how the water authorities impinge upon local authorities. I shall not spell out all the examples, because he knows how they impinge on local authorities. I heard somebody say that these small executive bodies will be composed of businessmen. As I said on Second Reading, I hope that there are also some businesswomen on them. They will need some busy women, if these bodies are composed entirely of businessmen. Therefore, I want to stress that, if local government representation is lost, we might as well ask ourselves, as somebody did in a letter to me:Is this 1984, and is this George Orwell, with no accountability?Finally, if the noble Lord feels that these executive committees will be important, and that these people will need to be interested only in profitability, is it not true that water is big business and must it not also be very close and very sensitive to its consumers, whether they are household consumers or industrial consumers? That closeness can be achieved only if we have local authority representatives. We are not asking for a majority of local authority representatives. We are asking the Minister only to put into the Bill what is already promised.
We know also that local authority representatives are accountable to their electorate. They have to keep their ear close to the ground. Local authority representatives know that if they do not carry out the wishes of their electors they will lose their seats. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at the amendment and not lightly brush it aside. I end as I began. This Government are showing a lack of confidence in the democratically elected members of local authorities—and shame on them for that.
§ Lord Bellwin
If we had been dealing only with the amendment I should clearly have made some observations upon it. But the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, has gone, as we say where I come from, very much over the top. First, what a coincidence that the letters which she has quoted arrived three days before this debate was due to take place. How interesting. The noble Baroness and others say, "Come on". The noble Baroness knows as well as I do that it is not very difficult to orchestrate such things to arrive in good time.
§ Lord Bellwin
Noble Lords may well say that, but we have listened to such expressions as lack of confidence if local government representation is lost. I can only assume that nobody listened to what I said. I said quite clearly that the representation would be two to four. I reiterated that the Government's intention is that that should be the representation. I say it again and, if necessary, I shall go on saying it. The noble Baroness has attacked the basis of these committees. The fact is that this was voted upon properly and passed by the other place and forwarded to us. It is a method of running these authorities which will not take away from people rights which they may hitherto have enjoyed. It is an attempt to try to give back 869 something to the people who at the end of the day have to pay for these services. We want also to provide for them a level and quality of service which is better than they have hitherto enjoyed.
The best way to achieve this, we believe, is by having boards and authorities of the kind set out in the Bill. They will be composed of people who represent the interests of those concerned but they will also have expertise and know-how which will enable them to provide a better service and better value. It is clear that we differ as to whether that is a better way than the existing way. The Government believe that this is the direction in which we ought to go. That is why we have made the proposals. We listen to amendments and try to meet them. I say right now, although I had intended to say it later when the ombudsman amendment is dealt with, that we intend to accept that amendment exactly as it is presented. We do so because, as we always do after Second Reading, we go away and read carefully the arguments which have been put forward. We believed that in this case the arguments had merit. I do not know whether Governments always do that. At least, therefore, we are entitled to some credit for having taken care and for having considered the arguments which have been put forward.
Why are we being attacked by my noble friend Lord Ridley and those who represent the interests of those in local government? I concede nothing of my own attachment to local government. We are being attacked because we propose not to write on to the face of the Bill something which we have said we are absolutely content to do in any case—something which in the other place we said that we would do. We are being attacked from all quarters on the sole issue of not writing this on to the face of the Bill. That is all that the amendment says, apart from the amendment of my noble friend Lord Ridley. As he fairly said, that is a fall-back situation. In the rest of our debates, and there are many to come, let us at least accept that there are differences of view as to the best way of going about what we are trying to achieve. If noble Lords opposite feel that the Government's policy is not right it is up to them to say so, but they must not expect us to move from the line which we believe is the right one to take.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but in view of its considerable importance and what the Minister of State has just said I feel justified in saying a few words. The noble Lord was at less than his best when he referred to the letters which my noble friend read out. Some of them are addressed to me. I can assure the noble Lord that I am not aware that they were in any way orchestrated. Although my noble friend received some letters during the last three days, others—I am prepared to pass them over to the noble Lord—go back over the last month and come from all parts of the country. They are not cyclostyled or photostat letters. They are all handwritten and they are all different. It would be a good idea if I were to pass them to the noble Lord so that he realises how profound is the concern about local democracy.
The noble Lord said that he and his right honourable friends were not selecting on the basis of particular interest groups. The Committee understands and apreciates that point perfectly well, but a local authority 870 is not a particular interest group. A local authority is a representative authority. The noble Lord was a member and the leader of the Leeds City Council for getting on for 15 years. I, too, enjoyed the privilege of being a member of a local authority for several years. Therefore, I speak with some knowledge of these matters. A body nominated by Ministers is more likely to be a particular interest group than the representatives of local authorities.
Local authorities are not foolish. They would seek to appoint people who are most fitted to the task. The noble Lord knows that from his experience, as I do from mine. They will do their best to select people who are fitted to do this job. But that is not the point. The powerful argument is that this amendment would introduce an element of democracy into what is now an arbitrary system. For that reason it is objectionable. I do not see any case against the amendment. This matter rises above party political considerations. It is one in which noble Lords from all political parties and those on the Cross-Benches are concerned. I appeal to the noble Lord to take back this amendment and consider it very carefully with his right honourable friend, otherwise we shall have no alternative but to press it to a Division.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
Before my noble friend comes to the end of this debate, I wonder whether he would give further consideration to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Onslow. There is not all that much between the Government and those on both sides who have moved amendments. The amendments ask only for the same number. It is simply the machinery of how those people are to be selected which is at issue. My noble friend Lord Onslow suggested that perhaps six or eight members might be nominated by the local authorities concerned. The Minister would then have a choice. Perhaps there is some way of bringing minds together. There seems to be so little between both sides that it is a pity to disagree over it.
My noble friend made a great mistake in removing the present local government members, and I said so on the Welsh order. Having done so, however, and having decided to boil the boards down to these small executive bodies, I see the difficulty for him. However, we have reached the point where there is very little between my noble friend and all sides of the Committee. There is a point here, that local authorities should have a chance to nominate. Whether my noble friend can go as far as accepting specific nominations of the two or the four people who are to go on the board is something I do not know. But he should be able to consider the possibility of the local authority bodies nominating a larger number so that the Minister can make his choice. That is something that my noble friend could very well consider. I hope that my noble friend will look again at this point before we reach a decision.
§ Lord Sandford
Perhaps I may just say a word, as my name is linked to both of the amendments we are discussing. I am sure that we should not get too excited at this stage, because there is much rougher water ahead. The fact of the matter is that we are changing from a system in which the regional water authorities 871 relied on having a majority of local authority representatives on them. I believe there is agreement that that system has not proved to be as successful as was expected. But we cannot really go straight from that situation to one in which there is nothing on the face of the Bill to secure any elected member from any local authority being there at all.
We have received from my noble friend, and from the Government in another place, an assurance that there will be between two and four members of local authorities. My noble friend is asking us to accept his assurance that that will be so—but a legislative Chamber must not do that. If that is agreed between us, we must put it into the Bill; that is very important. One can accept assurances on some matters, but we must not accept assurances on a matter as important as this.
My noble friend is being offered two suggestions, in Amendments Nos. 2 and 7. There are plenty of other permutations, as my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford had indicated. I must urge my noble friend Lord Bellwin to be more flexible and to state that he will accept the necessity to have the provision for a limited number of local authority representatives on the face of the Bill. It is not necessary for him to do that now but it must be done on Report. I hope that my noble friend can accept that point, otherwise we are bound to have a Division.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
I rise to speak very briefly, partly because of the jibe of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley; the days are long past when the Liberal Party could not amend Bills before this House and win a by-election at the same time! We definitely support the amendment now before your Lordships' Committee. An important point has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. It is important that the representation of local government should be written on to the face the the Bill.
The second important point is that some of the representatives of local authorities should actually be nominated by their local authorities. Here it may be that there is a principle involved of the kind which the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has mentioned; maybe we should look at this again to see if there is another way in which the amendment can be made. Perhaps the amendment should not tell the Secretary of State that he is to appoint people nominated by other bodies. But the general principle that there should be representatives of local government and that they should be nominated by local government itself is one we certainly should support.
These bodies will cover strategic planning for water, pricing policy, and a great number of other matters. It is important that local democracy is represented and that it is represented in a way—and this point has not seriously been made—that embraces different points of view and the points of view of different political parties. Different political strands of thought do come into even such matters as water. As at present drafted in this Bill, representation on these bodies will not allow the kind of genuine democratic to and fro which is important in deciding matters which are significant in our lives; and water is not the least of these. There is absolutely no case whatsoever for not having some 872 strong representation of local authorities, and for not having it in a mode which, at second remove at any rate, is democratic.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Before my noble friend the Minister replies, I would just like to ask, since he was so emphatic when he spoke earlier on the necessity for having local authority members on these new executive boards, and was so impassioned about this. why is it that he cannot write this into the Bill in some way? That is the question we are all asking.
§ Lord Bellwin
The writing into the Bill of a number is one thing. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for the way in which he put this point, because he summed up the difficulty very well. The question of a number is one matter; the question of the right to nominate as such is something else. The Committee may recollect that when making my response I majored—if I may use that term—and placed the main emphasis of my response to the amendment initially moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, on this question of nomination.
If the noble Baroness is willing to withdraw her amendment, I will undertake to go away and discuss this matter with colleagues—especially the question of writing in the number. The noble Baroness knows that guarantees I cannot give, but there are later stages and options remain open to anyone to do something later. I am impressed more by the issue of the number. I should like to go back and check on what precedents there are.
We have been told that if one believes in this, one should write it into the Bill. I want to see how many instances there have been in the past where numbers of this kind have been written on to the face of Bills. If the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment on those grounds, I will undertake to take this matter away; and she has the option to come back with this at a later stage if she is not satisfied with whatever answer the Government may give.
§ Baroness Nicol
I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, speaks in good faith; there is no question of that. But I share the feeling which has been expressed so eloquently from all sides of this Chamber that we really should make our feelings clear. I am aware that there may be technicalities of drafting which need to be tidied up. It is not my intention to place local authorities in the position of secretly nominating people to the water boards. If a change in drafting is needed to avoid that, such a change can be introduced at a later date. But having come so far, and having expressed its views so clearly, I believe that the Committee should now divide and give its view to the noble Lord the Minister.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Wootton of Abinger)
The question is, That this amendment be agreed to? As many as are of that opinion will say "Content": to the contrary "Not-Content". I think the "Not-Contents" have it. Clear the Bar.
The Tellers for the "Contents" have not been appointed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 50, and the Division therefore cannot take place. I declare that the "Not-Contents" have it.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Viscount Ridley moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 2, line 4, leave out from beginning to ("as") in line 5 and insert—
("(3) Each water authority shall appoint one of its members").
§ The noble Viscount said: Perhaps I should start by congratulating the Opposition Front Bench on a statesmanlike decision. I hope they will support me just as much on this amendment. We are here talking about the appointment of deputy chairmen to the new water authorities. In the spirit which I have already mentioned, which I think is not contrary to the Government's own intention of making these new bodies as efficient as possible, it is, I think, important that we should, as far as we can, give them as much confidence as possible both in themselves and their membership. I believe one of the ways we can give them confidence in their membership is to see that they have the power to appoint their own deputy chairmen.
§ This may not sound of earth-shaking importance, but I think it is important for several reasons. First of all, as may well be the outcome of the Bill, the Secretary of State or the Minister of Agriculture will appoint all the members of the authority. He or they must therefore be presumed to have total confidence in the people put forward for membership. If the Ministers have such confidence in all those people, I think they should have just that much more confidence and allow then the freedom of action to appoint deputy chairmen to act in the absence, through illness or otherwise, of the chairmen.
§ There is no suggestion whatever that I am challenging the right of any Government to appoint the chairmen of the water authorities. I am sure that is a correct and proper thing. But I believe that the deputy chairmen should have the confidence of the rest of the membership, and indeed of the chairmen, and the way to achieve this is by my amendment.
§ I am not making any suggestion in this amendment, and I hope it will not be used as a peg on which to hang the principle, of "Buggins' turn next". I have never thought that made any sense; I have never supported it, and it is not invariably right or wrong. If the chairman falls under a bus it must not be assumed that the deputy chairman will automatically be appointed by the Minister. Of course, if the chairmanship becomes vacant the deputy chairman acts as chairman until the Government appoint a new man. Nor would the Government feel bound to appoint an elected deputy chairman if this bus did come along and it became necessary. So I do not think that in doing this it can be said that I am trying to weaken or water down the right or duty of the Government to appoint chairmen to the new water authorities.
§ Had they not been deeply and very bitterly engaged in much more serious matters during the last four weeks, I would have been able to consult the current chairmen of the water authorities; but obviously, they have had more important things on their minds. However, I happen to know that two of the present chairmen would strongly support this amendment in principle and feel, as I do, that the deputy chairman should be somebody elected by the authority members.874
§ The one other argument that I would put forward is this. The appointees, the chairmen and the members will in effect be, whether we like it or not, political appointees one way or another. If they are from local government they may be just as political. If the Government were to change—of course, I am not one who wishes this Government to change at all, but if they eventually do through some terrible disaster—you could have a situation where the new chairman is appointed by the Government of one party and the rest of the board by another. This makes for considerable problems of loyalty, and considerable strains could arise in that situation. I therefore think that a deputy chairman who had the confidence of knowing that he had been elected by the board would help bring stability to such a situation until matters were sorted out.
§ I think this is a very modest amendment. In the interests of accountability and the confidence of the boards in themselves, I think the Government should be pleased to accept it. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
As my noble friend says, this is indeed a modest amendment, and, if I may say so after the previous debate, has been presented very modestly and and moderately. Would that I were able to accept it.
The point is that subsection (3) of the proposed new section, as it stands, would allow the Secretary of State to designate a water authority member as deputy chairman. As such it is well precedented; for instance, Section 1(2) of the Gas Act 1972 contains a similar provision. But we have not included it simply for the sake of consistency. Indeed, we have modified this provision in the other place so as to reflect the substantial differences between the British Gas Corporation and the regional water authorities. We do not need the power to designate more than one deputy chairman, as in the Gas Corporation case. However, it is important that the Secretary of State should, as with the other nationalised industries, have the power to designate the deputy chairman.
Let me try to explain why. Your Lordships will note, incidentally, that this is not a power to appoint a deputy chairman who is not already a member of the authority; it is a power to select a member as deputy chairman. It is not in the sense of an extension of ministerial patronage, but a prudent precaution. Just as the Secretary of State appoints the chairman, so he should decide who will act as chairman if needs must.
My noble friend raised the possibility of the chairman falling under a bus. If the chairman in falling under the bus were to be killed, that would be one thing; but what if he falls under the bus and he is just very seriously injured? He will then have to be away for a considerable period of time. That is really the basic reason why we are concerned about the amendment. I am sure my noble friend will agree that the deputy chairman, in this sense, is in an important position.
Quite apart from the "falling under a bus" possibility, the deputy chairman will take over from the chairman and discharge his functions if the chairman is ill, on holiday or for some other reason is unable to attend meetings of the authority. He may have to assume these duties for a considerable length of time, certainly in the case of prolonged illness. 875 When that happens the deputy chairman will have to act as the representative of his authority and be the link between the Ministers and the authority at top level. It is right that there should be a clear line of accountability to Parliament for such appointments, as there is in the case of the appointment of the chairman. For these reasons, in our view the Secretary of State must have the power to designate the deputy chairman along with his other powers to make appointments.
My noble friend, as I said, was very fair in the way he proposed his amendment. It is not the most critical of all the issues that we shall be discussing under the Bill. I would have very much liked to move towards him on this matter, but I wonder whether on this occasion—I suspect it might not be one of many—he will move towards me in accepting the fact that, even though it is not the most critical of all situations it could lead to real problems in scenarios of the type we were both describing in a half-joking way. There could be a serious basis to it, and for that reason I hope he will feel able not to press the amendment.
§ Baroness Nicol
I speak in support of this amendment for this reason. I have served on a very large number of committees, of various sizes and kinds, as chairman, vice-chairman and practically everything else. There is no doubt that when the chairman disappears, for whatever reason but especially on a temporary basis, it is necessary that the committee or body should have complete confidence in the person who is taking his place. It seems to me that they are much more likely to have confidence in someone they have elected themselves than someone inflicted on them (if the noble Lord will forgive the phrase) by the Minister.
The committee knows the qualities of each of its members, and, despite what has been said earlier in our debates, as time goes on they forget that they are there representing other bodies outside. They work together as a team in all the best authorities and the best committees. They are well aware which of their number can best represent them outside. They know his views, and that they can rely on him. For that reason I support the amendment.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Could the noble Lord help us a little here? I am in favour of the amendment. Do we understand—and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, made the same point—that the people who will be on the regional water authorities will all be appointed by the Secretary of State? We hope that the Minister will accept the action that we took on the previous amendment and take that up when he makes the appointment. If the members are all appointed by the Minister they are, therefore all equally capable, one would expect, or the Minister would not have appointed them. He has given the power to the chairman; so does it really matter, because they are all really good people who have been appointed, if the vice-chairman is selected by the remaining members of the group? Is it terribly important that the Secretary of State or the Minister has to say, "No, we are going to have so-and-so"? If he has nine picked men and he has singled out one as extra special, could he not let the rest of the authority choose their man?
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
May I say a word in opposition to this amendment? The assumed situation of political conflict, to which reference has been made, seems, with respect, to have an area of unreality about it in this context. There is no compelling reason in support of election as distinct from appointment. I agree, of course, that this is perhaps not terribly important, but, surely, before carrying an amendment against a Bill that has been brought from another place there must be some compelling reasons. In my submission, none has been put forward.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
May I make this point. Nationalised industries have had a rather rocky record over the years. My own feeling about them (indeed, my own experience) is that success depends basically on the relationship between the Secretary of State and the chairman. For the industry to be successful the chairman of the nationalised industry, whomsoever he may be, has to make winning the confidence of the Secretary of State his first concern. However important all the industrial considerations are—and they are weighty—he must be able to win the confidence of the Minister. So often these industries get into trouble because, for one reason or another, that confidence does not exist. It is in relation to that particular matter that I believe my noble friend is right in sticking to his point that if there is to be a deputy chairman it would be better if he were appointed by the Secretary of State, so that if he does have to act there is a reasonable prospect that there will be a good relationship between them.
I speak having had the rather peculiar experience of being appointed by a Conservative Government and then, by the time the authority—the National Water Council—came into being, there being a Labour Government in power. Therefore, I had to relate myself to Labour Secretaries of State pretty well throughout the whole of my five years in office. I found that some of my colleagues were surprised when I told them that I felt my first priority was winning the confidence of the Secretary of State. He is the link with Parliament, and, ultimately, the source of finance for capital purposes. Indeed, he is the link with the outside world, because unless he is prepared to defend his chairman in Parliament, and unless he has confidence in him and can take advice from him, the industry will never prosper.
Of course, he is responsible for running the industry, but he is also responsible for letting the Secretary of State know how the industry is going, and whether there is anything awkward that is likely to crop up; and, as far as he can, he has to consider the position of the Secretary of State. This is a very complex and subtle relationship, and it does not matter who the Secretary of State is. It is the only basis on which the industry can be successful. I am not at all sure that some of the present troubles of the water industry have not flowed from a rather different situation. Be that as it may, on the whole the appointment of the deputy chairman, if there is to be one, would be better in the hands of the Secretary of State.
Of course, there is force in the argument that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, put foward, that it would be desirable for him to be elected, but presumably the Secretary of 877 State will choose someone who will carry the other members' confidence, and then it is up to him to jollywell do so. On the point of preferring to have someone of their choice rather than someone inflicted upon them, the fact is that they have all been inflicted on each other. The Secretary of State has appointed the lot.
I should have thought that, on balance, this is the best way to do it, and that we might let my noble friend take his point here and allow him to keep it as it is.
§ Lord Bellwin
May I make just a few brief observations? I was amused when the noble Baroness. Lady Fisher, said that they are all equal. I am sure that everyone is equal, but some are always more equal than others. Primus inter pares is, perhaps, a term with which the noble Baroness will be familiar.
The same arguments about the deputy chairman can be said about the chairman; and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, who is so knowledgeable about these matters and who was so interesting in telling us about the relationships between the chairman and Ministers, and so on. I am sure he is right.
However, there is one point that I do not think we have brought out sufficiently—namely, that if the elected deputy chairman did not, for some reasons, quite work out, it is a darned sight easier for the Secretary of State to change him than it is for the members themselves. In any case, the most important point is that of accountability—that is the fundamental point. The responsibility lies with the Secretary of State who makes the appointment. He is answerable for that appointment. I hope that my noble friend will perhaps take that point more than some of the others that have been made, but not least those made by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford.
§ Viscount Ridley
I take all the points. I am rather sorry that my noble friend the Minister continually refers to the gas industry. I do not think that that was the precedent that we were looking for; I thought that we were trying to get away from the worst forms of nationalised industry.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, I do not believe that this matter was discussed in another place—but without going through Hansard I cannot be sure—and it is for that reason that it has been very well discussed here.
Finally, I should like to point out to my noble friend Lord Nugent, who always has a limitless supply of oil to pour on troubled waters, that he will need all his supplies before we go home tonight. I take his point very much indeed. I shall withdraw the amendment, but in doing so I would like to echo the feelings of all your Lordships that none of the chairmen or deputy chairmen of the water authorities goes anywhere near a bus, let alone underneath it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Jacques)
Before calling Amendment No. 4, I should point out a correction to the first line. The first line should read: 878Page 2, line 15, leave out from ("in") to ("and") in line 17".and insert the words as printed on the Marshalled List. I call Amendment No. 4.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett moved Amendment No. 4:
§ Page 2, line 15, leave out from ("in") to ("and") in line 17 and insert ("matters relevant to the functions of Water Authorities, subject to not less than one member being a person who has shown capacity in recreation, and not less than one member being a person who has shown capacity in landscape or wildlife conservation.").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 4 and at the same time I would like to speak to Amendment No. 6 which makes exactly the same change to the relevant part of the Bill as Amendment No. 4, but—so far as Amendment No. 6 is concerned—in respect of Wales and the Welsh Water Authority. I have listened to the previous debates and I very much hope that another hefty dose of moderation and modesty in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will enable him to accept an amendment.
§ This is a modest amendment. It does not suffer from the one fault which the noble Lord seemed to latch on to—or, at least, it was a fault so far as he was concerned—in the amendment on local authority representation, in that it does not strike at the Secretary of State's power to appoint or to choose who to appoint in any way at all. It simply strikes at the question of numbers which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, made clear when we were discussing Amendment No. 2, he was (at least in that case) quite happy to look at. I hope that the same will apply as regards this amendment.
All this amendment does is to require the Secretary of State to do something which I very much hope the noble Lord will tell us the Secretary of State will do anyhow, and that is to appoint one person to each water authority who has some expertise in wildlife or landscape conservation, and one person who has some expertise in recreational matters. I say that I hope the noble Lord is going to tell us that the Government will be doing this anyhow, because when the Wildlife and Countryside Bill was discussed in another place in 1981 on 18th June in Standing Committee D, at column 992 the then Minister at the Department of the Environment, now Sir Hector Munro, said:
I reiterate that we shall use our best endeavours to ensure that the water authorities have at least one member with experience of wildlife and conservation".
That was because the Wildlife and Countryside Act amended Section 22 of the Water Act 1973 to require water authorities to further wildlife and landscape conservation interests. That parallels a duty which water authorities already had under Section 20 of the 1973 Act to further the interests of recreation in so far as it was possible.
§ I would just add as an aside that I am sure that noble Lords who are more knowledgeable than I about this matter will not need reminding that water authorities are desperately important to both wildlife and landscape conservation interests and to recreation interests. Water authority land and reservoirs provide major resources for recreation in this country. They accommodate huge numbers of people as regards fishing, sailing, water ski-ing on their reservoirs. Large 879 numbers of people go walking on water authority land. Indeed, they are very large landowners, very significant landowners, for large parts of the population, and some of them have a reasonable record in allowing access to their land, although many do not. Indeed, that is a point to which I should like to return later.
§ Water authorities clearly have major influence on the shape and the look of the British countryside and the wild animals, plants and birds that live there not only in deciding where to build reservoirs and how, but also in carrying out their land drainage function—which we discussed under an earlier amendment—and in many other ways in the work that they do in the countryside. I do not think there can be any argument about their importance, and this has been recognised by Parliament in giving water authorities these dual functions to further recreation and conservation.
§ The Government, particularly on Second Reading in your Lordships' House, and also in another place, have given a good deal of detail about consultative arrangements and we shall discuss those in particular when we come to Amendment No. 34 of my noble friend Lady Fisher. I want to emphasise that in this amendment I am speaking to an entirely different point. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in particular, at Second Reading made some ponts about the regional consultative committees that the Government are envisaging, and I certainly hope that we can discuss those in more detail later in the Committee stage.
§ At this point I am getting at what the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, himself referred to on an earlier amendment as the management level of a water authority. It seems to me absolutely vital that there should be people with expertise—to take another word which the noble Lord himself used about the agricultural and fisheries interests—in these two areas at the management level discussing, for example, future plans before any consultation on them takes place—which is what I would take it that the smaller, more tightly organised management boards will be doing and will have a good opportunity to do. Noble Lords will not need reminding of the potential for conflict that there is between both recreation and wildlife and amenity interests, and some of the things that water authorities want to do in the course of their work. If we are to avoid some of those conflicts, or at least to minimise them in the future, it seems to me absolutely vital that people with this expertise should be available at the management level.
§ I should like to make two other points. First, I should like to justify the need for expertise. I hope that there is no one in your Lordships House who would suggest that, while people may be experts in fisheries or land drainage matters, everybody knows about recreation or about wildlife conservation. Those are both areas where the levels of expertise of the people working in the field have increased enormously over recent years. They are often very technical subjects where there is an enormous amount of literature and scientific and research information available. I do not believe that that type of expertise is generally available and in my view it is important to have people with it at their fingertips at the management level.880
§ Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, quite rightly said that water authorities have a very good record on fisheries matters where, of course, there has always been a statutory representation of one or more members on water authorities. I hope that he would not disagree too strongly with me when I say that in my view it is fair to say that the same could not be said. certainly not said without fear of contradiction, about the water authorities' record on recreation and wildlife and landscape conservation matters. I accept it certainly as regards some aspects of recreation, but there are, for example, a fair number of conflicts brewing at the moment between those interested in access to the countryside and water authorities. To give just one example, conflicts over land drainage and so on will be well known to your Lordships. Therefore, there is a very good argument for saying that the fisheries analogy is a good one, that it has worked well and that it would help these two interests—which, as I say, Parliament has recognised as being so important in the work that water authorities do—if there were a statutory provision for water authorities to further those interests. Having taken some time, I hope that the noble Lord will feel that I have been modest enough and moderate enough to enable him to accept the amendment. I beg to move.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I put my name to this amendment, and the reasoning which has made me think that for once I am totally right is a speech of my noble friend Lord Nugent earlier on, when I asked him why it was necessary to have a member of the agricultural lobby upon the water authority management boards. He gave a perfect reason for the Secretary of State appointing people with conservation interests: to do their statutory duty.
In the case of conservation, there is a statutory duty laid down in the Wildlife and Countryside Act that the water authorities will pay attention to conservation. Earlier on my noble friend spoke about the gradients of rivers and the fact that the fish could survive and live there, and that land drainage should be done neatly and tidily. All of this is, in fact, compatible with good conservation, but it will be very difficult if this compatibililty is recognised only after certain plans have been made and have been published, and then people have made decisions which, people being people and being proud, it is extremely difficult to change.
It would seem to me to be so much more sensible for a man who is trained in conservation, but who is also conscious of his job to manage a water authority, to say to the water engineer: "No, we do not take an absolutely dead straight dyke down through that area with steeply battenned sides; we make sure that it goes in a slightly different way. It may cost a little more money, but we must do it this way for conservation and wildlife reasons." If those things are perceived at an early stage, this will obviate the need for what happened at Halvergate. Halvergate was a long, rumbling and rather bitter row which finally ended up—at least I would say so, and I was quite deeply involved in it—in a very satisfactory compromise on all sides. The majority of the marsh was left as it was; there was a very small amount which was properly 881 drained to modern standards, and some of it was left in exactly the same way and SSSIs designated.
I think that there is a measure of concern for conservation which is growing and growing, and those of us who are involved in agriculture or those of your Lordships who are involved in local authority and water works of this sort will have to take heed of this. It is much more important to meet these questions early on, at the beginning, rather than to have a public row over them. That is why I support this amendment; and also because we have heard very good arguments for special pleading from the agricultural lobby and because the waterworks also have a statutory duty to take conservation into account.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I oppose this amendment, wearing the hat of someone who has had the privilege of sailing and, indeed, fishing on many water authority reservoirs, particularly Oxford. In making that remark I hope that I make a true friend of my noble friend Lord Nugent. I know that their record has been first-class as regards their efforts towards recreation. Indeed, as far as Welsh water is concerned, as opposed to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on the Alaw, which 15 years ago was made into a reservoir, they have segregated areas entirely for wildlife, much, I must say, against my own personal wish, which on that reservoir was fishing. But I think that they were right in doing so. I do not think that it is fair to castigate the water authorities on the recreation line.
The few remarks that I make to your Lordshops on this amendment I make with the full backing of the Central Council for Physical Recreation. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is not here, because he normally puts their case. For a multitude of reasons I, with the backing of the central council, would much prefer the option that the Government have offered us in the form of regional recreational committees. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale has kindly written to me since the matter was raised—indeed, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, at Second Reading—on how these committees will be formed under the guidelines.
There is only one detail on these recreational committees that I should like to raise with my noble friend, and it is a matter that still concerns the central council, for they would like these committees to be chaired by a member of their choice who would sit on the water board. I accept that my noble friend, to whom I have written about this matter, has probably not made up his mind on it because I see the other side of the coin. But perhaps he would bear this in mind and give me an answer later on.
But for these reasons, and particularly for the recreation reason so fully backed by the central council, I would support this form of recreational committee and not this amendment.
§ Lord Melchett
Before the Minister replies to the amendment, I wonder whether I could ask the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, a question. First, perhaps I could correct him about something. There is absolutely nothing in this amendment which would affect the regional committees. I made that perfectly clear. It is a point that comes later in the Bill, and I have some 882 worries about it myself. But with respect to the noble Lord, on the face of it this amendment has nothing to do with those committees. He seemed to me to be setting up—and I do not know why—an entirely artificial conflict between this amendment and the establishment of those committees.
But it seemed to me that he then went further and said something which 100 per cent. supported the amendment. As I understood it, he said that he would like the regional committees, which the Government have suggested, to be chaired by somebody "of the committee's choosing who sat on the water authority". Those were the words he used because I heard him. That may take us into dangerous ground with the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, who wants to retain the Secretary of State's exclusive power over who sits on the water authority. However, is not the noble Lord really saying much the same as I am in the amendment: that there should be somebody with an interest in and expertise on recreational matters, who presumably would be the ideal person to chair the committee on which the noble Lord is keen and which, for that matter, I also see nothing against? I cannot really understand why the noble Lord was suggesting that there was some conflict between this amendment and the regional committees. I honestly had not seen it. I had seen it as strongly reinforcing the Government's proposal.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
Perhaps I may just add a few words. I am afraid that I shall not be quite so helpful to my noble friend on this amendment because I think that there is real substance in it. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, only on one point. I should have thought that one member on each regional board covering both water recreation and wildlife and conservation generally would be all that the hoards could comfortably contain. But the case for including such a person is very strong indeed. I urge my noble friend to think about this again.
The intrinsic argument has been extremely well argued by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and by my noble friend Lord Onslow, with his particularly clever analogy of the special pleading for the agricultural case. However, the practical point that I wish to put to my noble friend is that the water industry will be very much weaker without the Water Space Amenity Commission. This has really done a tremendous job, not only in taking initiatives round the country but in spurring the water authorities to get on and be active in this field of water recreation and conservation generally. These are activities that in the past water undertakings never took part in, and the major objective in regard to all the great reservoirs of the past was to shut out the public at all costs.
There has been a tremendous change in the last 10 years to bring the new regional water authorities to see that these great reservoirs, the old ones and the new ones, are places with marvellous opportunities for water recreation, and the Water Space Amenity Commission has been the major factor in giving a lead to some water authorities who were reluctant to recognise their obligation to the general public. They gave them a lead and stimulated them so that they did so.
Not only in fisheries but also in water recreation 883 there is a good record, and I thank my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley for his kind reference to me. There is a good record there as well, but, unless every regional water authority of the future with small management bodies has somebody on the board who is generally expert in the whole of this field, there is a danger that water authorities may not be so enterprising and imaginative in their management to cater for the strong public demand for adequate water recreation and adequate conservation throughout this field.
It is a most sensitive subject. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, could not be more right. If one can, one wants to avoid conflict before it arises, because once it has blown up it is a hell of a job to damp it down. There is a point here. I hope my noble friend will feel able to take another look at it.
§ The Earl of Onslow
As one of the movers, may I say of the amendment that if the noble Lord were to say one, like Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah I would certainly accept one just man as opposed to two, which is the ideal.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
One could hardly have listened to a more reasoned small debate. I have every sympathy. I was always so delighted in the past when I saw how, through the water space amenity people and others, there was such a greater use of water for recreation in the area from which I come. I always thought that was marvellous. As I hope your Lordships will know, I always had tremendous personal attachment to sport and recreation, and everything that goes with it. I am certainly not unsympathetic at all to the underlying point that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, makes, and indeed confirmed so ably by my noble friends and others who have said something about it.
The problem is that, with the best will in the world, we come back to the constitution of the board. We are talking of a chairman; of two to four local authority members; we are talking of the executives, who clearly it will be useful to have there; and we are talking of the two statutory MAFF members. If we are to then say that we have to have someone to represent the water recreational side, dearly though I take the point, and I hope your Lordships will accept this, what then do we say to other sections who also would make a case?—perhaps not quite so powerful a case, because I happen to think that this is a strong case.
For example, we have people with knowledge of the water supply industry; or people with special experience in customer relations. The danger is that if you once start to fill up the board you leave out the opportunity for others who may be able to make a very powerful—as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, agreed—managerial contribution, or whatever. Here we are sticking to a formula which we have, which I feel at the moment anyhow is the only way to overcome what will be a difficult situation.
It could be argued: what is sacrosanct about a number? What is sacrosanct about nine and 15? What is wrong with 10 and 16, if you like, except that once you have got on to that one where would you end? The 884 reason why I feel I am in great difficulty here, whilst sympathising as strongly as I hope your Lordships gather I do with what the noble Lord is seeking to achieve with this amendment, is that I fear where it would lead us and the problems which it would create in itself. That is my difficulty.
Before I sit down may I deal with the points raised on Amendment No. 6, which deals with the Welsh Water Authority. There are differences between the amendments. For instance, the English amendment includes a reference to "recreation", and the Welsh amendment does not appear to require the appointment of a conservationist, if you will forgive the term, where the English amendment does. Nevertheless, the overall purpose appears to be similar, and for precisely the same reasons we find ourselves in the same dilemma in seeking to be sympathetic to the amendment. That really is the difficulty. I am sorry if it is not very helpful to the noble Lord, but I have explained why I am not able, as I am here today, to accept the amendment.
§ Lord Melchett
May I ask the noble Lord one question? I mentioned the commitment given by the Government in June 1981 in another place that they would use their best endeavours to ensure that water authorities have on them at least one member of experience of wildlife and conservation. Could the noble Lord say whether that commitment is now being withdrawn by the Government, or not?
§ Lord Bellwin
This point has been made to us before. We feel that what is now proposed, with the new composition of the boards and their small numbers, creates a new situation. There is no question of understanding the concern here, and indeed, more than the concern, the desirability as put by my noble friend Lord Nugent, but it seems that the arrangements made at regional level referred to under Clause 7, which we think need not cut across the existing satisfactory arrangements, will provide all that is required.
I clearly cannot accept the amendment. All I can say is that, as with the other things, we shall certainly discuss this later with colleagues. I can make no commitment at all, and if I were back at a later stage I must say, as I stand here now, that I fear I would be in the same dilemma, the same problem, of how could I log up the whole of the numbers, however deserving a particular situation might be.
§ The Earl of Onslow
It is a catastrophic situation that the Government have, in effect, thanks to Lord Melchett's probing, withdrawn the undertaking given in the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. The other thing that my noble friend Lord Bellwin said is this. If you have a conservationist person, and two agricultural people, and this, and that, and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, where does it stop? The MAFF man could be a conservationist. There are conservationists in the agricultural world, in spite of what the Guardian seemed to say this morning. I would regard myself as one of them. There are people who can wear two hats. There are local authority members who can be active and concerned conservationists. It does not necessarily mean that they have to be all different people.
885 Having regard to the fact that my noble friend Lord Bellwin has, to all intents and purposes, said that we shall no longer use our best endeavours to ensure that the water authorities have at least one member with experience of wildlife conservation on their boards, which is what I understood him to say, because he is relying on it at a lower level, then I would sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, pushes this amendment to a Division.
I had not intended to intervene in this particular debate, but I feel tempted to say a word in support of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. I served for some time on WASAC—the Water Space Amenity Commission—and in addition, in my capacity as a former chairman of the Countryside Commission, I had an opportunity to observe at close hand the apparent change of heart that came over the water authorities over a number of years, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said. He can remember, as I can, the time when water authority land on the whole was a sort of no-go area. You could not go anywhere near the reservoir, and you certainly could not bathe in it or fish in it, or picnic by it, and so on. There has been a total change of heart. I genuinely believe that has been brought about by the activities of bodies like WASAC, which is now to go, and by the recruitment into the water industry of many staff members at a senior level who themselves have great interest and expertise in such matters as recreation and wildlife.
There having been that change of heart, my anxiety is that if WASAC is to go and if we are to have much smaller authorities—which, in the way the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, implied, will not be able to embrace all possible interests—we may finish up with some water authorities on which there will be nobody with a very firm personal commitment to such activities, and we shall lose some of the momentum which has been gained over the years, and then we may slip backwards.
§ Lord Bellwin
If the scenario as described by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, were to come about, I entirely agree that it would be unfortunate. Perhaps I omitted to comment—certainly I should have done—in my opening remarks on whether or not it will be possible, as my noble friend Lord Onslow said, to have someone who is not only a MAFF man but has knowledge of recreation and so on. I do not know, but I suppose that will be possible. Although, as I said, we have difficulty in accepting an amendment which would make it obligatory, I would hope—indeed, I would give an assurance on the point—that, when making appointments, the degree of experience in the fields about which we are talking, in the authority as a whole, is a matter we should certainly want to consider.
I very much hope that will be the case. Indeed, I go beyond that and say it is something we should be looking to do. However, I am unable to take on a commitment to make a statutory appointment. That is the difficulty, but I should hope—my colleagues have already said this—that in considering the appointment of individuals, their expertise in this field would be a very strong factor.
The Earl of Cranbrook
I hope my noble friend will consider going further than merely hoping that expertise in conservation would be among the attributes to be sought. Conservation is not, in my opinion, to be seen merely as one of several sectoral interests to be balanced when drawing up a water board. Conservation is, as it were, a screen or pair of spectacles through which all activities of the water hoard must be viewed.
I draw your Lordships' attention to the Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, The Water Industry, in paragraph 623 of which the point was summarised. It said, roughly speaking, that because all forms of animal or plant life depended for their very existence on a supply of water, there was no step in the abstraction, storage management or disposal of water, before or after human use, that could be undertaken without due consideration of its ecological consequences.
My noble friend Lord Onslow has drawn attention, as have others, to the importance in political terms of prior evaluation of the likely impact of the activities of water boards in the fields of ecology and conservation. It is absolutely essential that there should be someone on every water board who, by his background, can direct the policy in ways which will avoid some of the unfortunate conflicts we have seen. I sincerely believe that the assurances given by Her Majesty's Government during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act—that there should be one member on the board specifically appointed for his conservation background—are absolutely indispensable.
I share the disappointment of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook with the reply of my noble friend Lord Bellwin. The same principle has arisen here as arose on Amendment No. 2—whether it is the same for a Secretary of State to make a promise to do something as putting it in black and white in the Bill—and it is not the same thing, and we all know very well it is not. Governments and Secretaries of State come and go, and I hope my noble friend will give further thought to the matter and not force the amendment to be pressed.
There is a serious risk of damage to SSSIs, nature reserves and great areas of scientific importance well beyond those resulting from the decisions of water boards, and we know perfectly well that that is true. We put in the Wildlife and Countryside Act a statutory duty on authorities to further nature conservation—not, as my noble friend said by mistake, simply to pay attention to the matter; that is by no means the same thing—and a provision to that effect appears as Section 48 of that Act, which amended the Water Act 1973.
It is wrong for the Minister to go back, as he seems to be doing, on the clear promise made by Mr. Hector Monro on two occasions in another place when the Wildlife and Countryside Act was being debated. I am sure my noble friend does not mean to go back on that promise. What really matters is representation at board level. There is plenty of to-ing and fro-ing between officers—that always has been the case and, on the whole, it is working well, even now—but that is not the same as having representation at board level, where policies are worked out and decisions made. I 887 beg my noble friend to go further than he has and to say, "Yes, I agree to look at the matter again".
§ Lord Melchett
A great deal of interest has been shown in this issue by noble Lords from all parts of the Committee. The one substantive argument which the Minister put forward against the amendment was the problem of numbers. He said in effect that if we had a specialist recreationalist, a specialist nature conservationist plus two MAFF people and the local authority people, we should be filling the board up. To some extent he seemed not entirely to accept the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that it is possible for people to wear more than one hat.
It so happens that in the last couple of weeks I have met two people on water authorities—one from Yorkshire and one other from the North-West—who do just that: wear two hats. Both of them have strong recreational interests, and the meetings at which I met them were concerned with recreation, although they were on different days at different places. I discussed the Bill and this amendment with them in turn, and both supported what we were trying to do and had grave worries—this has not been touched on in the debate—that, given the great pressure the Government will be under from numerous sources, there would not be any representatives (the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, made this point) at board and management level with expertise on these issues.
Of the two people I met, one was a local authority representative on the Yorkshire Water Authority, a county councillor, who, apart from his recreational interests, is an accountant who has just written a learned article about the financing of water authorities. He must bring enormous expertise in that field to the discussions of that authority, as well as being knowledgeable about recreation, The other, apart from his recreational interests, also covers the field which the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, mentioned, that of public relations or customer relations, and he is a considerable expert in that field.
It seems perfectly possible, therefore, to have—and not unreasonable for the Government to make sure we have—such vital interests covered; and I would tell the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that, in my view, the two he mentioned are very different. To find one person able to cover both, as he mentioned, would be much more difficult than finding, for example, an accountant who is also expert in nature conservation, or a customer relations person who also knows something about recreation. That is a much easier way of doing it than trying to find, for example, somebody who knows a lot about dinghy sailing or water ski-ing and has botanical and ornothological interests. Although such people are about, they must be much more limited in number.
I urge the Minister, in view of the widespread concern that exists, to reconsider the matter. The assurances he has given have been in terribly general terms and I do not think any noble Lord, on either side of the Committee, could feel happy about withdrawing the amendment on the basis of what he has said so far. He is always very straightforward about such matters. Whenever he feels that he will not be able to do anything further, although he always tries to be helpful, he does not promise to do something. Up 888 till now he has made it fairly clear that he does not think he will be able to do anything. If that remains his position, it may be best to see what view the Committee takes about the amendment.
§ Lord Bellwin
There are one or two points that I should like to make. First of all, Section 22 of the Water Act 1973 already statutorily binds water authorities to further conservation. I think the noble Lord will agree with me about that. I make that point also, if I may, especially to my noble friend who raised that aspect of it. Clearly there is much concern on this point; yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, properly said, if I do not really believe that I can consider it with the possibility of being able to come back with something, then, if the Committee have to give a view, I would sooner have that view given now, and so be it. That is why, when I say I will look at something and consider it. I say it in a way to be helpful; but I cannot always guarantee.
I am sorry that the noble Lord feels that what I have said is indeterminate. I accept that it is so because I could not do otherwise. I do not think I can undertake to do something. Of course we will look at it, but I cannot guarantee to come back with the answer that is wanted because I cannot, as I stand here, think of any way other than the one the noble Lord (or was it my noble friend Lord Nugent?) makes about having somebody who has a knowledge of conservation and recreation, and so on, combined with drainage and fisheries, et cetera. If the noble Lord feels that there is some likelihood that when I start to look at it closely I will come up with answers that may satisfy him, that is for him to decide. He knows that I am sympathetic to the point, but I cannot be more determinate than that.
§ Lord Melchett
As I have said, there seems to be very widespread support for the amendment, particularly, if I may say so, from the Benches behind the noble Lord. He has been very straight with us. He is prepared to look at it, but he does not see any other way of meeting the point of the amendment. This is really my view as well, and I think that in that case he really ought to be voting with us for the amendment rather than (as I am afraid he is going to do) voting against it. I hope the rest of your Lordships who are not tied down by a brief will feel, having listened to the arguments, that this is a modest and moderate amendment to the Bill. It would reaffirm a clear undertaking which the Government gave twice in another place very recently, as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, said. I think that on that basis alone your Lordships' Committee would be entitled to ask for the amendment to be put in the Bill.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 4) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 46; Not-Contents, 65.889
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Airedale, L.||Chelwood, L.|
|Ardwick, L.||Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Coleraine, L.|
|Beswick, L.||Collison, L.|
|Briginshaw, L.||Cranbrook, E.|
|Darcy (de Knayth). B.||Onslow, E.|
|David, B. [Teller.]||Oram, L.|
|Denington, B.||Pender, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Fairfax of Cameron, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Ridley, V.|
|Hall, V.||Rochester, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Seear, B.|
|Holderness, L.||Serota, B.|
|John-Mackie, L.||Shannon, E.|
|Kilmarnock, L.||Stewart of Alvechurch, B.|
|Lawrence, L.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.||Stone, L.|
|Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Longford, E.||Willis, L.|
|McCluskey, L.||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Melchett, L. [Teller.]|
|Mountevans, L.||Winstanley, L.|
|Abinger, L.||Lane-Fox, B.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Lauderdale, E.|
|Avon, E.||Lindsey and Abingdon, E.|
|Bellwin, L.||Long, V.|
|Belstead, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Boardman, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Malmesbury, E.|
|Caithness, E.||Margadale, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Marley, L.|
|Colwyn, L.||Massereene and Ferrard, V.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Mersey, V.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Newall, L.|
|Davidson, V.||Norfolk, D.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Northchurch, B.|
|Donegall, M.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.|
|Elles, B.||Renton, L.|
|Elton, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Enniskillen, E.||Sandys, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Swinton, E. [Teller.]|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Taylor of Hadfield, L.|
|Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Hayter, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Henley, L.||Trenchard, V.|
|Hives, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Hornsby-Smith, B.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, B.||Young, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
I think this is probably a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn for dinner. I think it would be useful if I were to tell the Committee that we intend to go so far as Amendment No. 12 tonight. I beg to move that we now adjourn until 8.15.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ [The Sitting was suspended from 7.31 until 8.15 p.m.]
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne)
The next amendment is Amendment No. 5. I should point out to the Committee that if this amendment is agreed to it will not be possible to call Amendment No. 6.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 5:
§ Page 2, line 20, leave out from ("in,") to end of line 23 and insert ("some matter relevant to the functions of water authorities subject to not less than three members being persons who appear to him to have had experience of, and shown capacity in, agriculture, land drainage, or fisheries").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I am more hopeful of my noble friend's approval, for I truthfully believe that it must have been a drafting mistake—or, indeed, a series of them—that caused the Bill to take no note whatsoever of the importance of agriculture in Wales. Unbelievably, as the Bill is written, the Secretary of State for Wales, when appointing members to the Welsh Water Board, does not need to have regard to agriculture, even though this is clearly stated concerning all the English water boards. I do not understand why there is this omission. Has Wales no agriculture? Has Wales no farmers on Snowdon? From whence cometh the English water? Surely my noble friend does not want a renewal of the bitter signs of bygone years when on every bridge one saw "Welsh water for Warrington workers". I am sure he does not.
I did of course read my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale's remarks on Second Reading on this particular point when it was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. At column 1072 of Hansard for 7th February my noble friend said:
… what about Wales? My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is the Minister of Agriculture in Wales; therefore, the Principality does not need a Ministry of Agriculture appointee.
I totally fail to understand such an argument. I am just—but only just!—able to understand the job of the Secretary of State for Wales. I am not, I hope, being irreverent when I say that I find his split personality as difficult to comprehend as the Holy Trinity.
§ This amendment gives the Secretary of State for Wales a little help with his split personality, for when he comes to decide who should go on to the water board he will be able to put on an agriculture hat and remember the problems of his greatest industry, agriculture, and appoint two members for their experience in agriculture. I would remind the Committee that this particular reminder to wear an agriculture hat is even given to the Minister of Agriculture when appointing members to the English water authorities. Surely if it is thought necessary to remind the Minister of Agriculture of his duty to appoint persons experienced in agriculture, how much more so the Secretary of State for Wales with his multitude of jobs?
My amendment will also correct another mistake, as I see it, in the drafting. As the Bill is written, it says that the Secretary of State shall appoint
persons who appear to him to have had experience of, and shown capacity in, land drainage or fisheries or some other matter relevant to the functions of water authorities".
I am advised that a strict interpretation of that sentence could allow the Secretary of State to appoint no member experienced in land drainage or fisheries and only those concerned with some other matter. My mind boggles at the hilarious possibilities of those other matters. Could we have a board consisting, for instance, of cockleshell collectors or some such persons? My amendment corrects this inconsistency. Finally, my amendment would bring the agricultural
representation on Welsh water equal to, but no more than, that of their English counterparts, though if I were a little more bold I would say that because of the importance of agriculture in Wales there should be even more. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
We have already debated the need for what I might broadly term agriculture members when we were debating Amendment No. 1. Perhaps I should first explain that land drainage and fisheries are two functions of the water authorities for which they are statutorily required to establish committees. They are not so required for any of their other functions. In England these functions fall within the ambit of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He is therefore given the power to make these appointments. Although, for reasons which I have explained, it is most unlikely, the situation could possibly arise where the Minister might wish to appoint a farmer with no experience of land drainage or fisheries rather than someone with experience of those functions; and to provide for this, the word "agriculture" is included within the Minister's remit.
In Wales the situation is rather different. The Secretary of State for Wales, among other things, is the Agriculture Minister for the Principality and is therefore able to choose members from all walks of life, including agriculture, without any singling out of the agricultural community being necessary. It is not—and I gladly give the Committee my assurance on this—a slight on the agricultural community at all. The contention is that it is simply not necessary to mention them in the Bill.
I should add, as my noble friend will probably be aware, that local consumer advisory committees have already been established in the area of a Welsh authority. The guidelines for these committees provide for two and, in some cases, three members to be appointed to look after farming interests. I am not suggesting at all that that precludes a member of the agricultural community from being appointed a member of the water authority—I understand in fact there are already three farmers on the Board of the WWA—but it does ensure a fair representation of farming interests at local level. Some of the other points that my noble friend has made are interesting in themselves. I hope that what I have said will assure him that his concerns should not be quite as great as they seemed to be when he moved the amendment.
§ Lord Sandys
I am sure the Committee will have recognised that the assurances given by my noble friend are satisfactory so far as they go, but where the problem has caused anxiety relates to the form the Bill takes. It may well be that the inclusion of the word "agriculture" is, in the mind of the Minister, otiose and unnecessary, but it raised considerable anxiety in another place in Standing Committee B. I think it is clear from our discussions of just a short time ago that there is grave anxiety in the mind of my noble friend Lord Stanley, and I make a plea to the Minister that, although this word may be unnecessary in fact, perhaps he could possibly consider including it purely as a matter of form.
§ Lord Bellwin
Would I include it as a matter of form? We are very concerned about including in the 892 Bill, as your Lordships will recall from the debate we had before the adjournment, many matters which are of very great moment. Not for one moment do I try to suggest that the point my noble friend Lord Sandys is making is not one of importance to those who are concerned about this. I accept that without question. But as to Wales, the fact is that the present wording includes agriculture, just as it includes industry and accountancy, if you like, as was mentioned. I certainly undertake, in response to my noble friend, to make assurance doubly sure, if I may put it that way, and I will look at this again. I would not say that it is impossible. But, in all fairness, I am bound to say that I think at the moment it is not necessary. However, I will have a look and, as I have said, make assurance doubly sure.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I am afraid I am not satisfied with that answer. I am sorry to tell my noble friend that in fact he has not answered any of my questions. He has not answered my questions on the "or", if I may put it that way. As the Bill is written, there is no need to appoint anybody responsible for fisheries or land drainage. They could all be concerned with some other matter.
I do not want to go into the argument about whether of not there should be agricultural representation on the board, but it has been accepted by the Government that the Minister of Agriculture should appoint to the English authorities members who are experienced in agriculture. We have had a little argument about this, and I have had to give way—I hope graciously—on the fact that it is only two members. If it is necessary for the Minister of Agriculture in England to have regard for agriculture—and that is written into the Bill in front of us—how much more important is it for the Secretary of State for Wales, with his multiplicity of jobs, to have it written in front of him too. As I say, my noble friend has not answered the question about other relevant matters. The whole board could consist of cockleshell collectors, with no experience of fisheries, land drainage or anything. I am not happy with this. I shall bring it back again and I hope that perhaps my noble friend will be able to write to me on the matter before Report—before I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, I see that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, would like to say something.
§ Lord Melchett
I am very grateful to the noble Lord and I apologise for having missed the first part of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, referred to earlier debates that we had and, having thought about what happened before dinner, I just wonder whether the sensible thing from his point of view, in the light of what he said about my amendment, and from the Government's point of view, would not be to get rid of any particular people nominated to water authorities, whether from agriculture or anywhere else, and leave all this to the regional committees, with which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, is apparently very satisfied so far as recreation is concerned. I am finding it increasingly difficult to follow the rather convoluted way in which his arguments swing wildly from one amendment to the next and I wondered, before he begs leave to withdraw his amendment, whether he could explain this further. I am trying hard to follow him, and not succeeding.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I knew it was a mistake to let the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, say anything! He says that he finds my arguments difficult to comprehend, and I find his impossible; but I do try to listen, and sometimes I feel that he does not. I must remind him, with the greatest respect, that he did not actually listen to my argument at the beginning of this debate, as he was kind enough to admit. Perhaps if he went away and read this in tomorrow's Hansard, we might all get on a lot better. But, frankly, the answer is: No, I do not agree with a word of what he said. He just puts words into my mind that he wants to put in.
At this stage, with an assurance and a nod from my noble friend on the Front Bench that he will write to me before Report on this matter—which is a serious matter and one which the Welsh farmer really cares about—I will beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 6 not moved.]
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 7:
§ Page 2, line 28, at end insert ("and to this end a proportion of the membership shall be appointed from among persons duly elected as members of the local authorities within the water authority's area, nominated by all such local authorities within the area acting jointly or, in the absence of such agreement, at the discretion of the Secretary of State").
§ The noble Baroness said: I do not want to reiterate all the arguments used previously, and perhaps, as the noble Lord the Minister quite rightly said, I was very excitable. After the supper break I am not so excitable. What I am not very sure about is why we did not divide the Committee. We were led to understand by the Minister that he was sympathetic to what we were trying to put over in the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Nicol. He expressed himself in sympathy with it. But our concern was that similar assurances were given in the other place, too.
§ I do not want to go all over the arguments, but, with the assurances that the Minister gave, I want to put some substantial meaning to them. Does he mean that he would like us to put down at the Report stage a further amendment, one that he would find much more suitable? Or does he feel that, after speaking to the Secretary of State and having further discussions, he might be able to put down a more acceptable amendment? I feel that this matter has been left a little in the air. That might have been because I was excited, or it might have been that I did not really follow what the Minister was saying. All I want to know is: does he want us to do some more homework, or is he saying that he will do the homework?
§ Lord Bellwin
It begins with our doing the homework. Whether that eventually leads to the noble Baroness having to do more homework of her own will depend, presumably, upon the conclusions that we reach. What I said was that there were certain aspects of it that we want to look at. As I say, when I have done that I will straight away inform the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and all who properly should be informed. Then it will be up to them to decide whether or not what, if anything, we propose is acceptable. They will then 894 decide on what line they want to take at a later stage. If what we decide means that it would be simpler for action to be taken by us, we will suggest that that is the way to go about the mechanics of it. I hope that is helpful to the noble Baroness.
§ Viscount Ridley
As the amendment is in my name, I want to be quite sure, like Lady Fisher, that the Government are serious about this. They must have got the message from this House, and had my noble friend not agreed to look at it again, there might have been a quite serious vote against the Government; and in that spirit I think we all withdrew from voting, on the basis that he will put down a suitable compromise amendment which suits everybody.
§ Lord Bellwin
I have to say that it was not in that spirit that I agreed at all. I agreed to it because I thought that there was merit in the points that were being made and I wanted to look at it on those grounds. My noble friend, of all people, would not really want me to say that I was doing it for the reasons that he implied.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 8:
Page 2, line 28, at end insert—
("(7) The Secretary of State shall before appointing the members of a water authority consult such bodies representing water authority employees as appear to him to be appropriate and in appointing such members shall have regard to any comments or nominations made by such bodies.").
§ The noble Baroness said: I think that perhaps the noble Lord the Minister is being very generous. He has listened to the farming interests; he has listened to the local authority interests; he has listened to the wild life interests; he has listened to the conservationists; and now he is to listen to the trade unions—last but not least, might I say. Our amendment is not seeking any mathematical equation. What we are saying in the amendment is that there is expertise in the field of trade union organisation, and so the amendment really is to ask the Minister that the unions, either as individual unions or through the Trades Union Congress, should play at least some consultative role in the Secretary of State's deliberations on whom to appoint to the membership of each water authority. The principles of consultation with employee representatives have already been agreed to, and are part of the Local Government Finance Act 1982.
§ What we are saying in this amendment, following the lines taken by other Members of the Committee who have spoken in their different fields, is that there is expertise. With any board of a managerial kind, whether it is called a board of directors or whatever it might be—these are being called water authorities—normally different directors have different responsibilities. Some may have expertise with exports or personnel, and some with other various aspects of the business. We see no reason why the trade union voice should not be part of the responsibility of perhaps one of the directors. If I may follow what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said in a 895 similar comment regarding one of the other appointments, if we have people of this kind it dampens conflict before it arises. What better organisation to be represented on a water authority than nominees who could be suggested if consultation took place? So in this amendment we are not asking for definite people—one, two, three or whatever—we are asking that consultation should be acceptable.
§ I think that perhaps the noble Lord the Minister might go only half way and accept the consultations but not the nominations. If that is the way he feels, I think that at a later stage we will bring forward a further amendment. We are asking that the appointment of members of the authority should be made in consultation with either the TUC or the unions concerned. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
At present there is no requirement on the Secretary of State to consult with anyone before he appoints the members of a water authority. The suggestion posed in the amendment would be an unusual provision, certainly in a nationalised industry context. It is not customary for Ministers appointing chairmen or members to public corporations to be required to consult trade unions or any other interested groups. If one thinks about it carefully, it cannot be right to do so. The doctrine of ministerial accountability to Parliament is well entrenched in our system, and rightly so. But when the accountability is, in effect, accountability for the actions of a body like a water authority, then there is an important corollary. It is that the Minister alone must be responsible for appointing members of the body for which he is answering.
I appreciate that we are here talking of consultation only. Ultimate responsibility, even under this amendment, would remain with the Minister. I believe that there is a dilution of ministerial responsibility in what is being proposed here. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to have regard to any comments or nominations made by employees' representatives. This implies a limitation on the Secretary of State's discretion; otherwise, what is the point of it?
Of course, Ministers do consult informally on various appointment matters. That is often the way that new names come forward. It is a way of testing whether particular names would be acceptable to those with whom the appointees would have close dealings. But these consultations are at Ministers' own initiative. They are the Ministers' responsibility, and in no way diminish their responsibility for the ultimate appointment.
There is an additional point. Anyone who knows the Whitehall appointment system will know that it contains a number of checks and balances designed to prevent the unacceptable from gaining appointment. It is a system which takes some time to operate. If we were to be required to consult all the bodies representing employees in the regional water authorities each time there was a change of membership, the whole business would become hopelessly bureaucratic. Others, too, would wish to be consulted, which would make the whole problem even worse.
May I make a final observation? I may have misunderstood the noble Baroness, but there is 896 nothing in the Local Government Finance Act 1982 about employee members of water authorities. Otherwise, for the reasons which I have given I am sure that she will understand why we do not wish to accept the amendment.
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
My noble friend and I are very disappointed at the reply which has been given. We certainly do not want to abrogate the responsibility of the Minister in any way. But we feel that this has a precedent in a measure enacted by this Government in 1982, which specifically mentions in Section 11(2)(b) such bodies as accountants, such bodies as represent local authority employees, and such other organisations and persons as appear to him appropriate. It seems to us to be very well precedented. The unions are anxious that either they or the TUC should have some part to play in the consultation procedure, when the Minister is thinking about what he ought to do. We certainly do not want to destroy the Minister's part in it; if anything, we want to make it more effective. I hope that the Minister will think again.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
May I say a brief word in opposition to this amendment? As your Lordships know, I very much favour the process of due consultation with trades unions. But, alas! these words constitute no more than an administrative exhortation. They have no legal efficacy. They are unenforceable by any known process of law. The obligation to consult such bodies as appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate is not a true obligation to consult, as, if nobody appears to be appropriate, there is no requirement to consult.
Even if one substitutes "may" for "shall"—and I am not on small drafting points—and the Secretary of State consults, the mandatory provision to have regard to comments or nominations made by such bodies is still, in essence, permissive. One may have regard and, having regarded, may then disregard. With the greatest respect—and I mean this—to the movers of this amendment, it is not suitable for legislative enactment, because it clutters up the statute with unenforceable verbiage. My noble friend Lord Renton was unable to remain, but may I be permitted to inform your Lordships that he would have spoken as I have done.
§ Lord Melchett
If your Lordships' House passed only legislation which was enforceable in the terms which the noble Lord has just suggested, there would be hardly any legislation on the statute book under any Government. This point has been made in numerous debates on numerous Bills; nevertheless, your Lordships' House has seen fit to include exhortations in legislation. The suggestion that it is only pieces of legislation which are enforceable through the courts which are worth passing is, with the greatest respect, a view which may be held by those who spend their lives working in the legal profession and the courts, but it is not one which I believe is generally held. There are many purposes for including things in legislation, other than employing lawyers to take matters to the courts, and I suggest that this is one of them.
I also want to take up one matter which the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, raised for the second time in the discussions during the Committee stage, and that is 897 about ministerial responsibility. It seemed to be an extraordinary suggestion that, because the Secretary of State consults with somebody, that, in some way, diminishes the Secretary of State's responsibility to Parliament, or interferes with the line of responsibility between the Secretary of State and Parliament. That is certainly what I understood the noble Lord to be saying; if he was not, he can correct it.
He implied that the Secretary of State's responsibility to Parliament for appointing people would be reduced or negated by the fact that he had to consult. If that were the case, no Government would ever produce a Green Paper. The idea is patently ludicrous, if the noble Lord stops to think about it, and I cannot for the life of me see why he tried to suggest it in this case. There are numerous occasions when Secretaries of State are obliged to consult, when it is suggested that they consult, or when they consult off their own bat. In none of these cases does it diminish the responsibility for the decision that they take, and I do not think that this amendment would either.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
Before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him, respectfully, whether he accepts that the will of this House on all sides in a recent debate was that we should seek to improve the quality of statute law, and to render it readily and plainly enforceable?
§ Lord Melchett
Your Lordships are very good at agreeing on general principles. It is my experience, both as a Minister and in opposition, dealing with legislation that, when it comes to putting particular measures in Bills, the general principles tend to go out of the window and everybody wants to see in a Bill exhortations and particular points. All of us, including myself, have been party to that sort of process in the discussions on this Bill. I do not see anything wrong with it. It is often useful to have exhortations and declarations of general intent in statute, and that has been the case for a great many years.
§ Lord Bellwin
Despite the extravagant way in which the noble Lord made his point, let me simply tell him exactly what I did say, which was that the consultations to which I referred are at Ministers' own initiative. I then went on to say that they are the Ministers' own responsibility and in no way diminish their responsibility for the ultimate appointment. That is the point which the noble Lord was making, and it is one that I made in saying what I did.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I am disappointed with the reply because all the other speakers definitely asked for numbers. They wanted one, two, three or as many as four. We are not asking for any numbers. We are just asking the Minister to consider anybody whom the trade union movement suggests. The trade union movement was not saying that it wants one, two, three or four. All I can hope is that the consultations which the Minister talks about will include, among all the other bodies—the businessmen, the farmers and all the others—a very large representation of the population of this country. If the noble Lord will not accept our amendments—and, for various reasons, he has said 898 that he will not—I think we shall have to come back on Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Lord Winstanley moved Amendment No. 9:
§ Page 2, line 29, leave out subsection (2).
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 9, which stands in the names of my noble friend Lord Beaumont, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, the noble Baroness, Lady Serota and myself. With such weighty support, it is not altogether surprising that we have already heard from the Minister that he intends to accept this amendment as it stands, and I am deeply grateful for that. That means that it will not be necessary to detain your Lordships' Committee in moving the amendment. However, the principle involved is so desperately important that it would be wrong merely to pass through this part of our Committee stage purely formally, It would be wrong not to underline the principle involved, and that I will do as briefly as I can.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will recollect that on Second Reading there were criticisms raised from every part of your Lordships' House and from every party. It was my feeling that, in the main, those criticisms were focused almost exclusively on the alleged lack of accountability of the new water authorities—authorities which were to be wholly appointed by the Secretary of State. The press were to be removed from their proceedings. We shall have to see about that. Local government in any meaningful form was to be extracted from the new authorities and the water authorities were to be removed from the scope of the ombudsman.
§ The amendment seeks to delete subsection (2) which removes the water authorities from the scope of the local commissioner for administration. All that we are offered in the Bill by way of accountability are the new consumer councils. I say nothing against them. In certain fields—the gas industry, water, telephones and so on—their work has been admirable, but unless the consumer councils are backed up by something else, perhaps by membership of the authority which they are investigating or by statutory powers to obtain all the information that they need to investigate the complaints given to them, they will become no more than mechanisms for the soaking up of complaints and for the allowing of time to pass until the complainant has somehow simmered down.
§ In the past we did at least have the ombudsman. He was to be removed. When these matters were challenged earlier the answer given to us was that since the new water authorities are no longer technically part of local government it was logical that the ombudsman should be removed from the field. Perhaps it is logical, but in my view it is certainly not sensible.
§ Furthermore, this move would be entirely contrary to the trend of recent years. In the days when the first parliamentary commissioner for administration was appointed, which was not so long ago, his role was very limited. The first ombudsman of the Select Committee of which I was a member announced on his first day that he had formulated what he called his adminis 899 trative screen of 10 jurisdictional tests through which every complaint had to pass before he could even look at it. Things have relaxed since then. We have now extended his scope to the National Health Service which originally was excluded. Originally local government was excluded. The majority of complaints arose in local government, but that barrier was broken and local government was brought in. In recent years, therefore, the trend has been a gradual extension of the scope of the ombudsman or the ombudsmen. They have been allowed into new territory.
§ Had we persisted with the Bill as it was, however logical that would have been in terms of the change of the structure of the water authorities, it would have been entirely contrary to the continuing trend of recent years and to my mind would have been desperately undesirable. I shall say no more, save that I am very glad to learn that the Government have finally understood this point and accepted it. I beg to move the amendment.
§ Lord Bellwin
First may I say that of all the speeches which we heard at Second Reading the one which most impressed us, as everyone would properly have expected, was that of the noble Baroness, Lady Scrota. It focused very clearly the anxieties of the House. As she pointed out, the Bill proposed to remove the right established by Parliament in 1974 that any citizen might ask for an independent investigation when it was felt that there had been injustice through maladministration on the part of a water authority. The noble Baroness emphasised the powers of the local ombudsman to investigate a complaint in depth. Without going into the matter in the way that otherwise I should have done, I have to say that the noble Baroness impressed us very much with her arguments.
I should like to make one or two points as to precisely why we feel that in all the circumstances it is proper to accept the amendment. The powerful arguments which were put forward caused us to reconsider the position. In particular we were concerned that for the first time the Bill proposed the ending of part of the local commissioner's jurisdiction. It would have involved the removal of an existing right. Although I am glad to say that this has not had to be exercised too frequently, it has nevertheless been an important safeguard for the individual. It is always difficult to assess how far the fact that a right such as this has not been exercised makes it necessary for that right to be continued. We accept that it is an important safeguard. That, as much as anything, is why we are persuaded, based on what the noble Baroness has said, that the ombudsman should be allowed to investigate any complaint brought to him about a water authority. We agree that it is wrong, primarily for reasons of consistency and tidiness, to remove a public right of continuing value.
May I make two points. First, our agreement to retain the jurisdiction in this case should be seen as the preservation of an existing right; it does not necessarily lend strength to the argument for extending the local commissioner's jurisdiction into other areas. Secondly, we believe that this is an important concession to local accountability. Some careful thought is 900 required about the role of the consumer consultative committees when handling complaints. I do not accept the description by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, of the role of those committees. I suspect that I shall have more to say about it on the next amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Serota, made some observations about this at Second Reading. At this stage, however, we are consulting only on the draft of guidelines for the new consumer arrangements. We shall need to consider the position in that context.
I am glad again to confirm that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the noble Lord. Lord Winstanley, is, so far as we can see, the right amendment to make to achieve the purpose which they and we have in mind. I hope that your Lordships will agree that in this area we have shown ourselves to be not entirely inflexible. I am glad to accept the amendment.
§ Baroness Serota
I believe I shall be expressing the views of noble Lords on all sides of the Committee when I say how delighted I was to hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, on this amendment. I am sure he has played a very great part in the change of mind by the Government. I have always found him most sympathetic and supportive of the concept of an independent and impartial system of investigation of statutory bodies providing essential monopoly services. The Committee is, I am sure, grateful to the noble Lord for the gracious way in which the Government have yielded tonight.
I became a little worried only when the noble Lord entered his caveat that acceptance of the amendment should not be seen as grounds for extending the role of the ombudsman in the future. This is neither the time nor the place to speak about the possibilities of future extension, although at a later stage of the Bill we may consider the question of more access for the citizen to the local ombudsman. With those very few comments, once again may I say how delighted I am sure the whole Committee is that the Government have had this change of mind. All of us welcome it and we thank the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the part he has obviously played in it.
§ The Earl of Onslow
From this side of the Committee may I say how nice it is for those of us who have had nothing much good to say about the Bill to see one's own side showing intelligence, sensitivity, wisdom and all the things that one normally comes to associate with a Conservative Government.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
May I from these Benches thank the noble Lord the Minister for the assurance he has given to the Committee. We shall look forward to seeing the guidelines. I would like to say on behalf of Members on these Benches how much we appreciate the words and the contribution made by my noble friend Lady Serota. Her great knowledge convinced the House that here was something that ought to be righted and we are most appreciative of her comments. I should like that to be publicly recorded.
§ Viscount Ridley
As my name is on this amendment, I too should like to record my very great thanks to the Government for this marvellous change of mind.
§ Lord Sandys
I feel that it might be almost excessive for me to add a word, but for me to say that this is a major concession is only just sufficient because it is indeed of the greatest importance in the management of this Bill and, later, of the Act. The Government's original intention was to place very great reliance upon the consultative committees. Now that these consultative committees are going to be effectively backed up with the role of the ombudsman, as we have grown to understand his operation, it will be of enormous value. I thank my noble friend most sincerely.
As the mover of this amendment obviously I should express my deep gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the statements he has made and for the action he has taken. I too should like to underline every word that the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, has just said. I should not want my gratitude to be diminished in any sense by any critical words, but I will also associate myself a little with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. The noble Lord the Minister has decided not to take a backward step. In relation to the very last words that he spoke to us, I hope that he will some day take some forward steps. I should like to see an ombudsman whose task was to investigate all the statutory undertakers—gas, electricity and the rest as well as water, but that is another story. I can only say now that I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ On Question, Whether Clause 1, as amended, shall be agreed to?
§ Baroness Nicol
I have one small point to raise on Clause 1, to which the answer may be obvious to some. It seems that under the new clause it will no longer be necessary for the Secretary of State to make orders. I am a little concerned that this may represent a diminution of control over the Secretary of State's powers. I should like the noble Lord the Minister to comment on this if he will, because I am not quite certain of the reason for this change.
§ Lord Bellwin
I am not aware that the making of orders is a point before us at the moment. If the noble Baroness will enlighten me, I shall be glad to reply to her.
§ Baroness Nicol
I am quoting from the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, which draws attention to the fact that in Clause 1, whereas under the Water Act 1973 the Minister had to make orders in order to appoint the authorities, this is no longer required. Perhaps the Minister would like more time to consider this point.
§ Lord Bellwin
It may be that I am missing the point that the noble Baroness is making, but I will certainly look at this and write to her.
§ Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley moved Amendment No. 10:
§ After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Admission to meetings.902
§ The noble Lord said: Rising as I do on that wave of euphoria, I hope to catch some of it—and speaking as I am to very much the same interest, I trust that the Government may feel almost as benevolent. I suppose that, along with at least two other noble Lords involved in the production of this amendment, I must declare an interest. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, but this amendment goes far wider than any sectional interest of that kind.
§ In your Lordships' House there is not just widespread support for the freedom of the press—that goes without saying—but also recognition of the importance that the press should have access to the proceedings of those who govern us. We on these Benches believe in that, the Social Democrats believe in it, the Labour Party believe in it, and the Government believe in it because the Government say that they aim to be and want to be a party of open government. The Prime Minister believes in it because she was responsible for the Bill that originally made it compulsory for local authorities to admit the press to their meetings. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, believes in it too. As yet, the right of the press to attend the meetings of these new authorities has been removed by this Bill. With this amendment, and with Amendment No. 44, we wish to prevent that situation.
§ The reasons for allowing the press into these meetings are reasons of generality and of principle, and I have very briefly to recite them. More interesting, perhaps, and more open to contention, are the reasons which have been given, particularly in another place, for resisting this amendment. There was considerable debate in another place, where the great majority of opinion on both sides of the House was in favour of an amendment such as this.
§ One of the reasons given against was that the size of the new authorities was such that it was not appropriate. In fact, I am told that the size of some regional health authorities is very much the same as the size some water authorities will be. In any case, I do not see what size has to do with it. Just as much damage can be done behind closed doors by a small body as by a big one—possibly even more so. We were told that the fact that it is an executive body was a reason for not allowing in the press. That was an answer which the Prime Minister produced at Question Time in another place. Whether or not the authority is an executive body, it is undoubtedly also a policy-making one.
§ On the previous amendment I had cause to repeat the number of things on which it makes policy, but clearly the most important in the context of this amendment is that it is a rating body; it is a body which has powers to levy taxes upon the citizens. For that particular reason, if for no others, there should certainly be the right of access for the press.
§ The other answer the Government have given is that there will be press conferences after the meetings of the authority. This is a sophisticated Committee, and we have all had experience of press conferences of various kinds; we have both given press conferences and we have, most of us, attended them. I do not think it can be very seriously suggested that there is going to be a wild rush of the press to attend the anodyne press conferences that will be given after the authorities have been meeting behind closed doors to consider the 903 statements which those authorities will consider it right to issue.
§ Newspapers come to discover news. They come to press conferences when they think there is going to be news. When they donot think there is going to be news, they do not come. We all know that. All you have to do to put off the journalists is to offer to have a news conference with no news, and you will get an absolutely nil attendance. We all know that, and we all know that in fact authorities of any kind, for most of the time, do not want news conferences. Of course, there are times when they have something to announce, and then they will call a news conference and the journalists will presumably turn up. But for the rest of the time, after their meetings, if they decide they have nothing of particular interest they may call a news conference, but they will not expect anyone to turn up, and nor will anyone turn up.
If journalists are to report the news for the benefit of the public, they must hear the arguments. They must be able to detect the nuances. They must not just be presented with what the spokesman for a body represents to them as something which has already been decided. Indeed, they will not turn up on such occasions. The Government may say, or others may say, that in that case it is the newspapers' fault. I do not believe that it would be the newspapers' fault. I think it is right that in a democracy we should open up our decision-making processes to the press on behalf of the general public. We all, as I said at the beginning, share in that belief: it is nothing which belongs to one particular party or one particular section of this Committee. We all of us believe that; and if we believe that, I believe strongly that we should pass this amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Ardwick
I think my professional interest in the subject is well known to this Committee. I must say that I find it remarkable and deplorable that in 1983 a Government which should be opening up new sources of information and new opportunities of participation are actually shutting one down. The people who are most upset by this are the editors of the sturdy regional and local newspapers, which play a great part in informing the public of the work of local authorities and of boards of this kind. The Government are closing down a source of information and an opportunity for the public to influence authority which the public have enjoyed, through the medium of the press, during the past 100 years. Yet there is no change in the functions of the boards.
Let me quote from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, at Second Reading:There are no proposals in the Bill to alter the basic responsibilities and areas of the water authorities."[Official Report, 7/2/83, col. 992.]Why, then, is the press being denied access to the meetings. First of all, in order to justify the exclusion of the press the noble Lord explained that the water authorities are being changed by this Bill into smaller executive boards. I see a fallacy here, and it is at the heart of our dispute with the Government. Yes, the boards will be smaller, but their function remains what it has previously been. The noble Lord said:There are no proposals in the Bill to alter the basic responsibilities and areas of the water authorities".904 If they are to be executive boards in the future, then they always have been executive boards, or boards with executive functions, and they have always admitted the press. So what is the problem?
It would perhaps be more accurate to describe the new boards as boards containing a number of executives—indeed, as containing some executive officers—in the employ of the boards. To quote the noble Lord again:An important subsidiary change will allow senior executives to become members of the new boards.This will put those with primary executive responsibility into the decision-making role. But, of course, they now become not mere executives of the board, they become important public figures. Indeed, the noble Lord emphasised that they must accept full collective responsibility for the consequences of board decisions. Responsible to whom? I suppose the Ministry. Responsible for what? For everything that the boards do.
But it seems that the Minister regards the new boards—this is why I was anxious to find out from him how they are to be constituted—as rather delicate plants. Instead of rough, tough local councillors they will have nominees from trade and industry and managerial types sitting alongside the bureaucrats. The Government perhaps fear that they may get themselves exposed to democratic pressures and from these they must be sheltered. The noble Lord said,It is impossible to function effectively as … such a board if at every stage one is concerned that the odd word here, the odd outspoken comment there, will hit the headlines next day."—[Official Report, 7/2/83; cols. 993–995.]What kind of board will it be? What headline could bring the blush of shame to the cheek of authority? What kind of public representatives are these who are afraid to face the questioning of a reporter or appear before the microphone on local radio? Surely this kind of ability is very common among the people of the type who will become members of this board. It is one of their qualifications for public office.
I put it differently from the noble Lord. I would say that it is impossible for a board which is taking large decisions to function effectively unless it is subjected to public scrutiny. The point was, I thought, very well made by my noble friend Lord Brooks of Tremorfa on Second Reading. He said that,the right of the press to report the actions and deliberations of public bodies is one of our greatest safeguards against maladministration and misuse of authority."—[Official Report, 7/2/83; col. 1067.]I can quite see that the Board will be different in style from the old boards. The debates will be sharper, briefer, more expert, and yet meetings of this kind are much easier to report than the long rambling debates held by rather large assemblies and, I may say, easier to report than the debates in this House which are long but I hope are not very often rambling.
It is true that the consumer, the water rate payer, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley emphasised, is to have his representatives—the Consumer Council. But, of course, its members will be on the outside looking in. They will be able to question the board but will not take part in the decisions. The press will be able to attend these meetings and will also be summoned to a press conference after a meeting of the regional board. The press will be told what the 905 chairman wants it to know about the decisions that have been taken. To find out what is really going on the press will be dependent on leaks. As the Government have learned in the past week or two, information leaks are harder to locate and check than are leaks from the water pipes.
Surely the Government must look at this matter again. It is most unlike this Government. It is unlike the thinking not only of the parties on this side but also of the Conservative Party, too, to close down a news source of this kind. Our amendment has been pressed in a non-Party way by people from all sides of the House and it has been pressed by people other than those of us who have a newspaper bias. I do hope that the noble Lord can give us some hope of perhaps reaching a compromise on the situation. If the Boards were to be opened, say, once a quarter to the press that would go some way towards reassuring the newspaper editors.
§ Baroness Elliot of Harwood
I support this amendment. I put my name down in support of it from these Benches for a particular reason. It was in May 1960 that the right honourable Member for Finchley, now our remarkable Prime Minister, began her political life in the House of Commons. She balloted and had time for a Private Member's Bill called the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Bill. It went through the House of Commons with the support of all parties—even people as different as Mr. Fenner Brockway and Mrs. Castle supported the Bill. The Member for Finchley invited me, who in 1958 had just become a Member of your Lordships' House, to pilot the Bill through this House as a Private Member's Bill. With some trepidation I did so and I had the support in May 1960 of the Labour Party, whose spokesman in those days was Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and, of course, the support of the Conservatives and the Liberals.
The Bill went through and was passed with no Divisions, but there were of course discussions. Today it is the Act which operates and it has been highly successful. It is the only Act on the statute book which has been put through both Houses of Parliament by a woman, because of course I had been in your Lordships' House for two years when I was invited to put the Bill through.
I have studied the debate in the other place and I have listened to the speeches which have been made, I entirely agree with everything that has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont of Whitley and Lord Ardwick. The Act has worked very well and it is one which was accepted by everybody. The schedule covers a wide range of meetings. It is very comprehensive. To quote from my speech in 1960:Bodies such as the London County Council, county boroughs, county councils, urban district councils, rural district councils, parish councils and all bodies connected with health, housing, education, water and other public services, and also combined boards and joint authorities, are included. In fact, the Bill caters for all existing bodies and for some that do not exist now but may be in the future.This Bill is an important step forward in our democratic system".—[Oflicial Report, 26/5/60; col. 1305.]That has been a fact. It has worked extremely well. There was a clause, and it still operates today, under which if there were certain subjects which had to be 906 taken in private without the press present—for example discussions concerning housing allocations and land purchases; questions relating to staff matters such as promotions or appointments; confidential inquiries from Government departments wanting information on a subject before a final decision is taken or a debate on a national issue—a resolution could be passed at the beginning of the meeting to say that such subjects should be taken in private and, if agreed, that happens. However, it is done entirely democratically and has always meant that if there was something that should be taken in private, it can be taken in private.
The point of the Bill was, and still is, that nothing is hidden from the public and that nothing can happen behind closed doors which concerns the public and the people who are paying for all these national services. These are services which come on the national budget. Your Lordships and I and everybody contribute to them. It is only right that we should know how our money is being spent, administered or what-have-you. It all comes under the Bill.
I have studied with some interest the suggestion that, because these new water councils will be small, they should not be open to the public. When I was a member of the county council at home we had the public or the press in whenever they wanted to come, and sometimes the meetings were quite small. But it was a matter about which they wanted to know and it was of interest to people who were concerned with whatever democratic organisation was then functioning. The same applies today. You do not want to have the press excluded because the meeting contained 12 or 14 people when you wished it had contained 50 or 100 people, or whatever the number might be. That is not the point; that is not the principle. The principle is that these matters, which are of interest to the public, which are paid for or subscribed to by the public—it is public administration—should be known to the public and by the public.
I am very unimpressed by the fact that under this Bill it is suggested that, because these are small committees or small gatherings, they should not be open to the public. That seems to me to have no relation at all to the important fact that the public should know about it. I think that I have suggested that legislation that we pass should look to the future and should improve things. The suggestion to exclude these bodies from the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act is a very retrograde step indeed. I very much hope that the noble Lord, who understood very well the last amendment, which I am delighted he has accepted, will realise that this amendment is just as important, and that we should do just as much for keeping the principle of this Act going as we have done for any other. It is an Act; it was passed by a Conservative Government in 1960, and I would be most regretful if the Conservative Government in 1983 fail to carry out the principle. I hope that this amendment will be accepted by the noble Lord, as he accepted the last one.
§ Lord Hemingford
I should like to say a few words in support of this amendment to which I have put my name. I speak as a member of the Guild of British 907 Newspaper Editors. It seems to me that this evening we have seen and we have recognised the noble Lord the Minister wrestling with the difficulty of trying to make the composition of the new authorities directly accountable. We found him able to deal with the great worry which the House had over the question of the ombudsman. I very much hope that this amendment, which I think comes between those two points, will meet with his approval.
I think that the point about the ombudsman is that he is capable of dealing with matters after they have gone wrong. That is a very important thing to be able to do, but it means that something has already gone wrong. It seems to me that, if the press are admitted to meetings and can watch the policy-making process, there is a chance that there can be sufficient debate in the public media which can prevent things from going wrong. That seems to me to be an important reason for preserving the right of the press to attend these meetings.
The noble Lord the Minister said earlier, when he accepted the previous amendment, that the previous Bill removed an existing right. I would point out that that is exactly what the present Bill is doing in this case, because it is removing the existing right of the press to attend. I would urge on him that if the logic of excluding the ombudsman is seen to be not necessary, then I do not think that it is necessary to follow the same logic and exclude the press.
§ The Earl of Onslow
One of the besetting sins in this country's Administrations—and it does not matter who is in power—seems historically to have been an obsession with secrecy. It is infinitely better to make people open and outwardly acceptable to the public and accountable to the public, than to allow inward cabals to arrive at decisions which cannot be queried or questioned during the formation of policy process. This is why one would like the press to be present at the majority of these meetings.
There are statutory duties on conservation and on other things which are laid down in regard to the water authorities, both by the Water Acts and by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. How can the public know that these duties are being carried out, or are not being carried out, as the case may be, if the press does not have access? I totally concede that the press recently has given itself a bad name. There have been fines for contempt of court. There have been grave criticisms by the Press Council, and certain newspapers have recently indulged in practices which most reasonable human beings would regard as being in the most appallingly bad taste. But it is the press we have, and a lot of it is extremely good. Even with bad judgment, bent ''hacks- and "hackettes", call them what you will, that press is the best press we have, and it ought to have access to these meetings when they take place.
Of course my noble friend Lady Elliot is right in saying that if something like compulsory purchase is talked about, or staff salaries, or an individual's behaviour, then the press should be excluded—but for a specific reason. Surely it is better to give them the right to be there unless specifically excluded for certain reasons, and the reasons will be known before the discussion takes place. That is a right compromise 908 between the rights of an individual to have his individual interests protected and the rights of the public, through the press, to know what is going on by boards of water authorities which, after all, are dealing with very large sums of public money. That is why the press ought to be involved in these discussions.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Lord Boardman
This is a highly emotional amendment in that we all have a love-hate relationship with the press. We love them when they are nice to us and say the right things; we think otherwise on other occasions. It is also emotional in that we all pay tribute to open government, we all want open government, it is something which we all endorse, and yet we must be pragmatic about it. I would support the amendment entirely if I felt, from the practical point of view, that it would produce a more effective result on the water councils, and if I felt that their debates would be better and that we would finish up with a more effective operation, lower charges, and so on. But I do not believe that it would be so.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred to press conferences being an anodyne substitute. I believe that councils held with the press there would be anodyne councils. If one had to contrast between the effectiveness of the councils being held in the presence of the press and the press conference, I believe that the press conference would be far more effective. On those occasions, of course, the press are able to ask questions, and press those who have made the decisions for their reasons and arguments. On the council they can only be passive listeners.
Many of us who have taken part in meetings where the press are present and where decisions have to be made, know all too well that in those circumstances the really delicate decisions, the ones which people like to know about, are taken in committee behind closed doors, and you have the bland debate in the council chamber itself. I well understand the sentiments of noble Lords opposite who, quite rightly, are pressing for further open government and further exposure to the press, and indeed the sentiments of my noble friend Lady Elliot who did so much to get this originally started in 1960, and I am sorry to disagree with her. However, attractive as it is superficially to have open government, to have the press there, I feel that it would not lead to more effective decision-making or better service to the customer. There are other methods—the Minister has already referred to some—and there are amendments to be discussed later about consumer rights, and so on, which could be more effective than the press being present. For those reasons I cannot support the amendment.
§ Lord Stewart of Fulham
I suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, has got it the wrong way round. He was arguing that we should not admit the press because we would not get better administration as a result. Surely, as a free country we must start from the assumption that the press should be admitted, and anybody who does not want them to be there should be able to show that we would get worse administration if they were admitted.
It is admitted that in certain circumstances that 909 could happen: that if the topic were, say, about land or the personal affairs of an individual, the press should not be present. That is provided for. If there are grounds for believing that the presence of the press would result in worse administration, an authority can, by means of a motion, exclude them. Surely, the general rule with which we should start, as is normally the case, is that the press should be there. The press will not earn their right to be there by being able to prove that their presence will necessarily result in better administration. Those who want to turn them out must try to show that there would be worse administration if they were let in. From my understanding of the argument, and from reading the debates in the other place, the supporters of the Bill as drafted have not even begun to prove that.
§ Lord Boardman
I would contrast meetings of the proposed water council with what happens at meetings of an executive board—a contrast which was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. It will be on all fours with bodies such as the gas and electricity boards, which do not admit the press. That is the contrast to be made between the decision of an executive board and that of a deliberative council, such as your Lordships' House. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Stewart, if he can remember—I certainly cannot—any occasion at which the deliberations at meetings of water boards, when the press have been there, have resulted in press reports. Therefore, while the onus may be to show that they would be harmful, my argument is that there is certainly no evdience to show that they have achieved the purpose which all of us would like, if possible, to be achieved.
§ Baroness Trumpington
I support my noble friend Lord Boardman and hope the Committee will not divide on this issue. Nobody could believe more strongly than I in the freedom of the press and their right to the facts and figures. However, I also believe that the total right of the press to be present at all meetings of authorities would turn out to be purely cosmetic. Noble Lords will have sat on committees where the press were present. In reality, the true arguments and true nuances as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, all took place either before or after the arrival or departure of the press, the result being a quite dull meeting when the press were actually present.
Following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Stewart, I suggest that, far from having a reassuring effect on the public, in certain circumstances the articles that would emerge from the presence of the press at all meetings might prove to be tremendously worrying. "No news is good news" is an old saying. Therefore, only the more sensational aspects of any meeting would be reported. To coin a phrase, leaks about leaks could cause consternation. The press should be free to ask questions of the authorities and they should be given access to annual reports and, indeed, to all documents. Although they should be free to ask questions at any time, as my noble friend Lady Elliot said, to have the press present during discussions about, say, staff appointments and salaries would be intolerable.
§ Baroness Elliot of Harwood
That is allowed for in the Bill as drafted. If something of that kind is about to be discussed, one simply asks whether the whole meeting agrees that it should be discussed with the press not present. If all say "Yes", the press are then not present. But they are present unless such a resolution is passed.
§ Baroness Trumpington
That makes the presence of the press even more cosmetic, in my view. I hope the Government will look at this again and that the public will feel, and be, fully informed both by the authorities and by the press. At the same time, I believe that certain rights of the authorities to maintain their independence must be allowed to remain their prerogative.
§ Lord Mottistone
If I might add a word, I think that my noble friend Lady Elliot is probably barking up the wrong tree in seeing a threat to her very special Act of Parliament of 1960, which is not itself threatened at all in the purpose for which it was designed. What I think is perhaps missing the point in all the discussions and in some of the earlier debates on earlier amendments is the fact that the Government are trying to change these bodies into executive bodies with a commercial instinct to run water as efficiently and capably on behalf of us all as they can. The whole accent is on making it as easy as possible for them to run a commercial operation.
No noble Lord has suggested that we should have the press in at every board meeting of public companies or even of the small companies. One needs to see these new, small hoards as being much more equivalent to a board of directors of a small company rather than of a public company. As your Lordships know, if you look at it from that point of view you will see that there is no argument for having the press there whenever there is an ordinary meeting—except when it is excluded under the rules of the Public Bodies Act; and when it is excluded under those terms, the press will probably get suspicious that something is going on that they ought to be listening to; and this would make matters worse rather than better.
One wants to see it more as though it were a company trying to run a service for the public as efficiently as it can. It has been said that it is different from the gas and electricity boards who do not have to have the press for the very reasons I have put forward. The fact is that the water authorities and their charging system are not an example of taxation without representation; nor can the authorities be likened to local government. The authorities charge for the services they provide, so as to meet revenue expenditure. They do not obtain central Government support. Water rates are not taxes. Rateable value is used as a proxy because no universally applicable alternative charging basis has been evolved so far.
Progress is being made to move away from a rateable value element and all consumers, as your Lordships know, now have the option to be charged on a measured basis. The principle is working towards having a proper, efficient, commercial operation to look after our water for us. That is what we need. I would agree with those who have said that the consultative committees would be the ones that would be 911 much more appropriate for the press to attend in the normal way so that the boards may get on with their job and run the organisation efficiently for us. One will then find that it is very much a better system than having the press breathing down the backs of one's neck whenever they feel like it. I hope that we all resist the amendment.
§ Viscount Ridley
I should like to support the amendment very strongly. My noble friend Lord Mottistone seems to me to have missed the essential point. It has nothing to do with a commercial company. We are all compulsory consumers of water and compulsory payers for water. This is not a commercial operation at all. It is a statutory one. If local authorities can, and have, made this Act, which my noble friend Lady Elliot produced so skilfully, work, then so can the water authorities.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
I should like to interject, if I may. Much as I should like to support the Government, I think that my noble friend Lord Mottistone has raised a point which needs elaborating. The mere fact that the water authorities are dealing with—and "handling" as my noble friend Lord Onslow said—public money makes it rather important that this should be watched over more carefully. If it is a public company where shareholders have shares and attend board meetings, and so on, there is no earthly need for the press to be present at their meetings. But as a public board they do not have individual shareholders. Perhaps it begs the question whether the water authorities might not be run by a private organisation, and then there would be no need to have the press attend.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I cannot emphasise more strongly that the water companies are statutory monopolies producing something which we all have to use. I accept that some of our forebears existed from morning to night on scotch whisky, but they were in a very small minority. There is no competition for water whatsoever, and therefore the analogy of a private company is totally false.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
I wonder whether I may present the Government's view on this amendment. I have been listening with much interest, as I did at Second Reading, to what has been said. I should like to say at the outset that the Government consider this to be a matter of major importance to the overall objectives of the Bill. Let me try to explain why. No executive board of the kind which controls a major undertaking in the public or private sector throws open its meetings to the press and public. Why is that? First, it is because there is now doubt—and those who say otherwise are not being fair because in this Committee there is a mass of experience in this area—that the presence of outsiders at meetings of this kind has a profoundly inhibiting effect on discussion. People will not speak up as freely as they would in private. To deny that is simply to turn one's back on reality. That is not the whole of the story. Let me put it another way. In democratic assemblies we accept unreservedly that the access of press and public to a debate is not only desirable but I go further and say it is essential.
912 It is ironic that I should be winding up and presenting the Government's case on this issue when in the whole of my public life I have fought above almost anything else for openness, for everything to be on the table; and I did not mind what was shown. I wanted everyone to have access to all the papers and to all the discussion—and, yes, the press. If anyone doubts this, I would refer to my record, if I may put it that way, in my former incarnation. As it happens, it was a tenet of all that I believed in in public work. I still think the same.
May I take a few moments to show why I reconcile without difficulty that passionate belief in openness in public debate with what we are proposing in the Bill? I know that the Committee will bear with me. I should like to put it this way. I know that there is a profound difference between local authorities and the authorities which we are constituting under the present Bill. We are taking the water authorities out of the local government area within which they have been located hitherto. I do not merely mean by this that the local authorities are losing the right to appoint a majority of members. It also means that we are turning the authorities from large gatherings—and we know about the 62 members in the case of the Thames authority—into small, executive boards.
Let me stress that this is in line with the recommendation of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. We are turning the meetings from being debating chamber in character into round table discussions. Meetings at present are relatively infrequent: four, five or six times a year. Much of the detailed work is done outside the main authority meetings which are almost like set piece debates. Under the new arrangements, authority meetings will tend to be more frequent and last longer. The relative informality and the presence of executive members on the boards will mean that much more of the detail of policies can he discussed by the authorities in their board meetings.
I would emphasise the importance of the executive members in this context. Their presence on the boards will represent a totally new departure, with an opportunity that has not been available hitherto for a detailed analysis of key policies with contributions from experts. In my submission, it is impossible that this process can be assisted by the presence of members of the press or of the public. I would ask your Lordships to imagine the sort of stilted conversation that must take place around the table in the knowledge that every word is being taken down and might appear in the following day's headlines.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, made a very fair and reasoned speech and I agreed with a great deal of it. He said in effect: "You must be joking". He belittled it, but I would ask each and every one of your Lordships to put yourselves in the position of those who will be sitting round these tables in small meeting groups, in the knowledge that you are talking among yourselves and trying to hack out whatever may be on the table for discussion; and then compare that with doing the same thing when members of the press and public are listening to every word that is said. For anyone to say that it would not make any difference is really going beyond the bounds of credibility.
I am trying not to make a long dissertation on this but I think it is important for me to make one or two 913 observations. I should like to emphasise one point which I think has been under-appreciated; that is, when we are talking about the new consumer consultative committees we are not talking of what we have seen before. We are talking of something which would be a very significant step forward. The committees will be able to consider any water authority matter which affects the interests of people living in the area. This would include fundamental questions such as charging, financial policies and overall investment planning. It also includes more detailed local issues and individual complaints where these are not satisfactorily dealt with by the water authority—saving the presence of the ombudsman! The committees will include representatives of every local authority in the area as well as representatives from many other organisations. A combination of a wide remit and the sort of membership we have in mind will ensure that the committees are not just a forum for idle chitchat. They will be able to grapple effectively with the main items of water authority business.
There are to be many of these. The total number of consumer consultative committee meetings means that in a region of average size there would be more than twenty, as compared with the present number of four, five or six meetings of consumer committees, which is typical of what one finds now, generally speaking. We are talking of a new type of body which is there precisely for the purpose of making information available and giving an opportunity for the public to question in depth. So I would ask your Lordships not to omit that from your consideration of what has been said.
I am tempted to take up some of the points mentioned by my noble friends, such as: how do you equate a public company, a private company and public bodies of this kind? Perhaps I may just quickly give an illustration by referring to the recent, very sad, water industry dispute. Water authorities now will have to take stock and decide what lessons are to be learned. The process will be exactly the same as in any industry which has just gone through an agony of this kind. The newspaper industry—dare I say?—is one which has more than its share of industrial problems; indeed, it is a byword for them. They have been seriously afflicted with prolonged industrial disruptions of one kind or another and I would go so far as to say, such is the importance to this country of a free press, that the industrial troubles of Fleet Street are a matter of great significance to us all.
I have no doubt that industrial relations matters frequently feature on the agendas for board meetings, just as I predict they will in the water authorities up and down the country following the recent dispute. Yet we do not ask or expect that such board meetings should be open to the public. We do not expect that serious discussions on matters as delicate as industrial relations should take place in public, whatever the company or the public corporation.
As far as the principle is concerned, does it make any difference that these are public bodies that we are talking about? Are we to suppose that every public corporation shall conduct its affairs with the press sitting in the room? When I referred previously to this 914 and asked: "why not apply this to the Gas Board or to the Electricity Board?" some of your Lordships said: "Why not, indeed?". All right: why not apply it to British Rail, the Coal Board and all the other nationalised industries? To pursue that to its logical conclusion one would have to admit the press to meetings of the Court of Governors of the Bank of England, the Privy council, even the Cabinet because, after all, all these bodies are public bodies. I ask your Lordships each to consider again, would you be prepared to serve on an executive board like those of the water authorities, as we are altering them, dealing with detailed managerial matters, in the knowledge that the press will be there to listen to your every word?
Let me say just this to finish. I hope no one will think that we lightly or ill-advisedly put this provision into the Bill. No one would willingly, without the deepest and most careful thought, undertake something which he knew was likely to give concern to the press of this country. The press remains a singularly powerful lobby. I have had enough experience of public life to know that the press will print the last word, and I know how powerful that word can be. It is not with relish that I persist in espousing this course of action, but I do so, and the Government do so, because, in our view, it is right that water authorities should be given the same opportunities as other similar bodies to debate their affairs away from the spotlight of publicity. In practical terms, in the knowledge of how the executive boards will have to conduct their affairs, I submit this is the only way they can operate freely, as they must, if they are to be the effective bodies which we believe the water industry needs.
We intend, through the new role that I said we are giving the consumer councils, through the other measures we are proposing and, come to that, any other additional measures which it might be possible to use to publicise and involve those affected by the work of the water authorities to keep them and open up the affairs of these bodies. This issue was dealt with at length, was voted upon in the other place—the government having a substantial majority of over 50 on the Floor of the House. I ask your Lordships to accept from me the Government's willingness to open up the work of the new bodies as wide as, and wider than ever before, but, please, do not so restrict the practical administration of their working to the point where the objectives we are seeking become stultified. That is what I sincerely believe will be the result if this amendment were to be passed. I understand, indeed, the concern expressed by those who have spoken in support of the amendment. In turn, I hope that they will understand and equally respect my opinion that they need not be concerned in the way they fear.
§ Lord Ardwick
May I ask the Minister a question? Did I understand him aright in saying that the Government had not thought of this infamous proposal for themselves but that it was put into their heads by the Monopolies and Mergers commission? Is that what the noble Lord said?
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I shall not keep the House very long because I think many noble Lords have expressed good points of view on why the press 915 should be allowed to attend the meetings. But there is one thing that I have not heard any noble Lord say, and nor did the Minister refer to it. Under the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 the press has the right to receive the committee documents relating to those meetings to which it has access. Does that mean that because the press will not be admitted the documents will not be available to it? In many instances, articles written in the press are based upon the documents that are given to it. To my own knowledge of the Birmingham local authority it was always said that the documents that the committee members had must be in the hands of the press at the same time the committee members had them. The members would them be able, through the press, to draw the attention of the public to anything in the documents and the debates could be followed. If the documents are not available, then the press will be completely stifled and will not know what is going on. I should like to know whether the Minister is saying that, although the press cannot be there in the flesh, they can have the documents to consider.
I do not think that the noble Lord has given us the real burden of proof as to why the Government have come to this decision. The editors of local papers do an excellent job—the noble Lord, Lord Hemingford, has great knowledge of local papers—in the areas which they serve. They are not always taking a party line; they take a public line on what they think are important issues. To deprive local people of knowledge about what is going on in their locality is exactly the opposite to open government, which the Minister has tried to explain.
May I remind the noble Lord that the press are allowed to attend all rent tribunals. Normally there is a chairman and two other people and they are exposed to the full glare of publicity. Therefore, it is not a question of numbers. In fact, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, said, some council meetings are attended by very small numbers of people. Again, as the noble Baroness said, the press are asked to leave certain meetings at all levels. Very often members are discussing a social services case which involves a certain child or a family and, because the local authority does not want the case to be the subject of public knowledge, the press will be asked to leave. One has to give credit to the press for understanding how public meetings are operated.
I should like to follow up what my noble friend Lord Ardwick said. We hope that these will be very efficient committees, after all we have heard about them, comprised of small groups of highly intelligent people. Heaven knows where the Secretary of State will find all these people—
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
The Government have found them. I sincerely hope that they will be more efficient. But is not that a reason for letting the public know? Will they not want to know how much more efficient these six or nine people are, than the 45 or 50 people? Will the Government not want the public to know that they are saving money and giving better service. I thought that would be the first thing that the Government would have wanted known. As my noble 916 friend Lord Ardwick asked, if the press cannot go to every meeting, might there not be a quarterly meeting with the press, at which the authority would say, "This is what we have put into operation. This is our long-term plan. Now fire away. We are all round the table and we will give our quarterly report"? That is something which the Minister could consider. With all due respect, I see the attitude of the noble Lord on the opposite Bench, but Members of his party have spoken at great length on this amendment.
As regards the consumer councils, I cannot see anything in the Bill—and, of course, we shall not know till the guidelines come—stating that the press cannot be admitted. There is nothing in the Bill about that. What a fine state of affairs we shall be in if the consumer councils open their doors to the press and the first thing they say is that they disagree violently with the recommendation which the water authorities have put forward and they then go into great detail about why they disagree with the recommendation. Will it not result in very lopsided reporting? If we are to have democracy in this country we must make sure that we obtain it through the press and through every other kind of media. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will consider favourably this point, just as he considered favourably the ombudsman amendment.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
In this debate it appears quite often to be my fate to expose the fact that the arguments of the noble Lord on the Front Bench hang together in a horrible way. The closing speech of the noble Lord the Minister was very helpful. He went to the heart of the matter. He exposed a basic flaw at the heart of the Bill. He may well be right in thinking that one cannot have this kind of reform without doing away with democracy—those are my words, not his—and without doing away with the freedom and access of the press to the procedures of Government. But if we cannot do that we should not have the Bill. It is the belief of those of us on this side of the Committee that if we cannot reject the Bill as a whole we can do something to lessen its bad effects if we include certain safeguards. They include the access of the press to the procedures of bodies which will be making decisions about our affairs and about taxes imposed upon us. Contrary to what one Back-Bencher on the other side said, they are taxes because they are applied, although possibly in only a minority of cases, where no water or sewerage services are provided. Although these cases are exceptional they do exist and it is a form of taxation.
We believe that the noble Lord's Bill and the authorities which it is proposed should be set up could operate, perhaps not so well as the noble Lord would like but perfectly adequately if the press were to be present. Whether they could or whether they could not, we believe it would be totally wrong and against an absolutely basic principle of democracy if we allowed the taxation without representation which is provided for in the Bill. We have had a look at the possibility of more representation. Perhaps that is not on the cards. The possibility, though, of having what is decided properly reported to us, and open to srcutiny, is open to us. Therefore we must press this amendment to a Division.
§ 10.9 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 10) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 35; Not-Contents, 47.
|DIVISION NO. 2|
|Airedale, L.||John-Mackie, L.|
|Ardwick, L. [Teller.]||Lawrence, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L. [Teller.]||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||McCluskey, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Collison, L.||Onslow, E.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Crathorne, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Darcy (de Knayth), B.||Ridley, V.|
|David, B.||Rochester, L.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Sandford, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Serota, B.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Stewart of Alvechurch, B.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Stone, L.|
|Hemingford, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Irving of Dartford, L.||Winstanley, L.|
|Abinger, L.||Hornsby-Smith, B.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Inglewood, L.|
|Avon, E.||Ingrow, L.|
|Bellwin, L.||Long, V.|
|Belstead, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Boardman, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Mackay of Clashfern, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Margadale, L.|
|Chelwood, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Cockfield, L.||Mountgarret, V.|
|Coleraine, L.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Craigmyle, L.||Sandys, L.|
|Cranbrook, E.||Shannon, E.|
|Davidson, V.||Sherfield, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Elton, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Enniskillen, E.||Swinton, E. [Teller.]|
|Ferrers, E.||Taylor of Gryfe, L.|
|Gainford, L.||Taylor of Hadfield, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Vaux of harrowden, L.|
|Henley, L.||Young, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 10.17 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield moved Amendment No. 11:
§ After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:
.—(1) It shall be the duty of the water authorities to settle from time to time, in consultation with the Secretary of State, a general programme of research into matters affecting the discharge of their functions.
(2) It shall be the duty of the water authorities to secure the carrying out of any general programme settled by them under the preceding subsection; and for that purpose they may themselves conduct such research or make arrangements with any other persons for the conduct of such research.
(3) In this section "water authorities" means the regional water authorities in England, the Welsh Water Authority, and regional and islands councils in Scotland.").
§ The noble Lord said: I move this amendment to give effect to the findings in the report of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology relating 918 to the water industry. The amendment has two main purposes: first, it would place an obligation on water authorities to draw up a collective research programme for the whole industry; secondly, it would ensure that they do this in consultation with Ministers, so that the interests and obligations of both parties are given their proper weight.
§ The committee's arguments are set out in detail in Chapter 6 of our report, and I do not think it necessary to rehearse them all now. Briefly, the committee found that the water industry has not given sufficient support to research and development; the Department of the Environment is not devoting enough interest or resources to research and development, either; and strategic research in particular—that is, long term research into a perceived problem—is being neglected. My amendment is designed to remedy these deficiencies.
§ The water authorities already have powers to carry out research, and excellent work is being done, both within individual authorities and at the Water Research Centre, which is the industry's research association. Further work is done elsewhere in the research councils or on commission. But there is no central focus or forum for the establishment of a general programme of research in fields of interest to the whole industry. The interests of the authorities separately are catered for: the interests of the authorities together are not.
§ The National Water Council, even though it had done little about research and development, was at least a potential forum for discussion of scientific and technological issues covering all the authorities. Its forthcoming disappearance will remove the only body which could have filled the vacuum. There is, of course, the Water Research Centre, but I detect a tendency to throw the whole burden of research on to this body. The Water Research Centre, good though it is, is too much involved as the executive research arm of the water industry to supply research leadership from a national standpoint. Anyway, I suggest that to leave everything to the Water Research Centre would be a mistaken policy. It has quite enough on its plate already, and is likely to have more.
§ The Association of Water Authorities, which is proposed to take the place of the National Water Council, will certainly not be equipped to initiate a corporate research programme. What is needed is a duty on the water authorities to draw up a general programme of research similar to the duty which the electricity and gas industries already have.
§ It is right that the primary responsibility should be on the industry. Ministers, however, are directly concerned, especially as proxy customer for strategic research in accordance with the Rothschild principle, representing wider interests than those of the water industry alone, and it is essential that the water authorities should discuss their research programme with Ministers. By this means the division of responsibility for research between the water authorities and Ministers should become much clearer than it is at present. It is also desirable that the research councils and university departments most concerned should be associated with the drafting and development of the research programme, but I do not think it is necessary to spell this out in the Bill.919
§ It may be said by some noble Lords that the water authorities already have a power to carry out research under Section 24(10) of the Water Act 1973, and that Ministers have the power under Section 24(11) of that Act to give directions on the exercise of that power. But a power to carry out research is not at all the same as a duty, and a power to carry out research individually is not at all the same as a duty to draw up a research programme collectively and to carry it out. Furthermore, the Water Act does not extend to Scotland and it is important that the problems faced by the water industry in Scotland should be given as much attention as those in England and Wales. My amendment seeks to draw the Scottish water authorities, who are the regional and islands councils, into consultation with the English and Welsh water authorities so that common problems can be considered in the most economic and effective way.
§ I believe that the time has come for the water industry to draw up considered and comprehensive research programmes, and this is what my amendment should achieve. I beg to move.
The Earl of Cranbrook
I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, who so ably chaired your Lordships' Select Committee inquiry into the water industry. I take his lead again and I shall refrain from quoting at large from the Select Committee's published report which is available. But I would draw attention to the key issue which is illustrated in, among other places, the series of questions and answers numbered 15 to 31 that appear on pages 17 to 19 of the evidence published with that report.
It appeared to the sub-committee of your Lordships' Select Committee that, even under existing arrangements with the National Water Council playing its role, there was a significant lacuna; that is, an inadequacy in the processes that ought to be provided for fruitful assessment or promotion of a long-term review of strategic research priorities in the water industry.
This is, of course, not to say at all that the Select Committee were unimpressed by the quality or the appropriateness of the research programmes that are currently in hand. In fact, the Select Committee saw a great deal that is of interest and clearly of importance in this area during their visits to the Water Research Centre and to water authorities. But as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has emphasised, it is natural that any water authority should tend to concentrate its research effort on problems that are of topical or local interest and priority.
While the Water Research Centre provides a vital central service in unified general research into relevant subjects, it is in fact not the rôle of this body to undertake the overall review of research strategies. This task, it seemed to your Lordships' Committee, is clearly one that must be a function of the Secretary of State. The amendment proposes a mechanism to ensure that this function is properly carried out and that the Secretary of State is given the means to do so.
My noble friend on the Front Bench may detect that there is a certain double edge to the amendment: while it lays a duty on the water authorities, clearly it also places a reciprocal obligation on the Secretary of State. 920 But I hope he will agree that it is not any the worse for that.
§ The Earl of Shannon
Although I am not a Member of your Lordships' Select Committee I, too, should like strongly to support the concept of this amendment, as I indicated during the Second Reading debate when the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, was kind enough to tell us that he would be moving this amendment and the subsequent one during the Committee stage. If, however, I do have a criticism against this amendment it is that it could be even more specific.
It is quite undeniable that an industry such as the water industry must have areas where there is a requirement for common strategic research. It is only intelligent that we should make provision now, officially and centrally, to co-ordinate these requirements into a single research programme. The general interests of all water authorities must be covered by this programme in matters affecting the long-term needs of the industry. If we do not make provision now so that there are means to make good the currently, I understand, somewhat neglected long-term strategic research in the industry, we are only going to be left with a collection of ad hoc bits of programmes which concern immediate, pressing and often local problems of individual authorities. I beg strongly to support the amendment.
§ 10.28 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
It falls to my lot for the third time this week in your Lordships' House to return to the subject of research. All that I can say tonight is that it has been well worth waiting in the wings. At this time of night I am unable to answer this very important amendment which, as we have heard, comes from the deliberations of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, quite as fully as I would had we been at an earlier stage in the afternoon. Nonetheless, I have listened with very great interest to the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, in support of his amendment in connection with research. They speak with all the authority of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology. The department will, of course, in due course and in the usual way, be making a full reply to that Committee's recent, and, let me say, "meaty", report on the water industry which was presented on 15th December last. It raises a wide range of important issues, but the present debate is concerned only with research as such, and is the subject of its sixth chapter. I shall confine myself to this subject. I should say straightaway to both the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, and my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, who both supported the concept of the amendment, that so do the Government.
The Government are glad to endorse the committee's tribute to the Water Research Centre, both as regards a research programme carried out in the centre's three laboratories at Stevenage, Medmenham and Swindon, and as regards its ability to identify the needs of the industry and take the necessary steps to meet them. The Government consider that it is one of the strengths of the Water Research Centre that it concerns itself not only with research needs which it 921 can itself fulfil, but that it also concerns itself to identify gaps and longer term problems which can be researched elsewhere, and acts as a broker for the industry in securing that such research is carried out in other institutions. There is now a round of discussions in the autumn of each year with the separate parts of the water industry. From this consultative process the centre's officers draw up for the approval of the council as a whole their proposals for the research programme.
Your Lordships' Select Committee identified certain obstacles to the water industry's research programmes, and I should like to say something about these. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has of course commented on them this evening. These views should be set in the context of the law as it stands and of the present situation. As he said, the key statutory provision is in the Water Act 1973 at Section 24(10), which says:Each water authority shall make arrangements for the carrying out of research and related activities …".In spite of what the noble Lord said, that is quite clearly a duty. It continues:… and in particular … may make"—and there is a power coming here—arrangements for the carrying out of research and related activities … by subscribing or otherwise financially contributing to an organisation formed for that purpose.".Subsection (11) says:The appropriate Minister or Ministers may give directions to a water authority with respect to the making of arrangements under subsection (10) above.".Again, I agree with the noble Lord, this is a power. This section of the 1973 Act also includes requirements on water authorities to carry out surveys; to submit for the approval of Ministers concerned plans and programmes of a general nature. In practice, water authorities submit an annual plan to the Secretary of State for the Environment every March to serve as a basis, among other things, for the annual review of public expenditure.
In the Government's view this statutory framework provides that the English and Welsh water authorities, collectively and individually, can carry out appropriate research. Each has the power to do it for itself, and there are the powers and arrangements for common needs to be met at whatever end of the research spectrum they may lie. It is natural that water authorities should undertake for themselves such research whose objective is the application of research results to a specific problem. There is nothing to stop them from carrying out in common or individually work to develop techniques from a research level to the level of application. But much of that sort of work is best carried out on a common basis, and the research establishment is the natural place for research into a perceived problem (whether of a long or short-term character).
The committee considers that there has been a gap left in the field of strategic research and that, with the winding up of the National Water Council, the department should take on a responsibility for assuming the existence of a long-term research strategy in the water industry, taking account of the needs of that industry and of the interests affected by the 922 industry's activities. The Government will accept this recommendation.
The department will take steps to establish what is needed by way of long-term strategic research and see that it is carried out. The most appropriate mechanism and procedures are for consideration. The Water Research Centre, on whose council come together representatives of all the water undertakings and also the industrial and governmental interests concerned, have an important part to play in identifying long-term strategic needs and priorities.
I turn next to the research programmes of individual authorities. Noble Lords will note that under the existing powers in Section 24 of the Water Act research activities and programmes could be included in the annual plans already submitted to the Government by water authorities. Leaving on one side the question whether it is necessary, or desirable, for every water company and all the Scottish water undertakings to prepare programmes of research for discussion with Government departments, I believe your Lordships will agree with us that the statutory framework is already adequate to get the water authorities to prepare research programmes and to carry them out. It is the Government's intention, consistently with what I have said about their taking a more forward position on water research, to act on the committee's conclusions, and within the present legislation to get individual authorities to draw up and carry out research programmes of their own. As proposed by the committee we would also require them to include statements of their research activities in their annual reports.
In this context. I should briefly tell the Committee that the Government are also ready to accept the committee's view that there should be more spent on research relevant to the water industry and the water services. The committee identified certain gaps and priorities, and pointed to areas where it would be useful or wise to do more. Without going into further detail at this stage, I should like to say that the Government will be approaching both the question of long-term strategic research and the matter of research appropriate for the water undertakings themselves, whether individually or collectively, on the footing that a higher level of expenditure is indicated if certain needs are to be met.
I hope that the Committee will agree that the Government have gone a long way towards meeting the wishes of your Lordships' Select Committee in this respect. I realises that it is probably too late to come to a decision on this matter tonight, and that what I have said will repay careful study, not only by noble Lords who have spoken but also, I suspect, by myself because it is quite likely that I have got myself into more of a muddle than I intended. At this point I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, will agree that the principal difficulties over research programmes which his recent report identified can, and will, be overcome without need of this amendment.
§ Lord Sherfield
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. I am also glad to hear that the department is studying the report of the Select Committee and in due course will give a full response to it. As regards his reply to the amendment, of course 923 I am aware of the powers under the terms of the 1973 Act. At the same time, the committee discovered some quite serious gaps in the research programme. These gaps have continued during the currency of the 1973 Act, which suggest that perhaps it has not been effective, or perhaps it has not been applied as well as it might have been.
There is a great difference between a duty and the use of a power, or of a direction, or directives, to nationalised industries and parallel bodies. I know, having been in the equivalent position to a head of a nationalised industry, that Ministers are reluctant to give directives, and from the point of view of a nationalised industry that is a happy situation and one to be encouraged. But at the same time there is this reluctance to use powers, so I am not sure that I am satisfied on this point.
However, the Minister gave some clear indications of an intention to move in the direction of what the committee wants. I accept his suggestion that there should be an opportunity to study the statement that he has made this evening with the prospect of returning to the matter on Report. On that understanding, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield moved Amendment No. 12:
§ After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Water research association.
To assist the execution of their duties under section (Research), the water authorities, as defined in that section, shall be members of a research association approved for that purpose by the Secretary of State.").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment in a sense follows its predecessor. It arises from another recommendation of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and deals with a particular, rather than a general, point. All water authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, with the exception of the islands councils, belong to the Water Research Centre, which is the industry's principal research arm. They do so voluntarily. Although voluntary membership has some advantages, the committee felt that the Water Research Centre could not operate effectively while it was subject to threats of withdrawal from its major constituents. There have been such threats, more than once. We also felt that research planning could be improved if there was a long-term commitment to membership of the Water Research Centre.
The committee found that insufficient resources were being devoted to research and develpment in the water industry, and in particular to the Water Research Centre. This amendment therefore seeks to ensure that the water authorities are committed to the Water Research Centre and pay their share of the industry's costs. I do not regard this as an undue burden on the water authorities. Since they have a four-to-one majority on the council of the Water Research Centre, they effectively control its policy. To quote the committee's report:
The control exercised by the water authorities' voting strength is a quite sufficient lever on Water Research Centre policy without it having to be recognised by threats of secession".
The amendment includes the Scottish islands
councils. If, however, the position of the islands councils is very different—and it may be—from that of the mainland authorities, I would not object to their exemption from the duty of membership. I beg to move.
§ The Earl of Shannon
I regret that, unlike the previous amendment, I cannot support this one, as I gave notice on Second Reading, when the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, gave notice of his intention to move it. I outlined my reasons at the time, but I had better repeat them. First, such an amendment would achieve very little. As the noble Lord said, the authorities are already all in voluntary membership of the Water Research Centre.
Secondly, experience has shown that the best co-operative research associations are those with an active, interested and satisfied membership who subscribe voluntarily. We must be careful not to incur the danger of creating a resentful attitude among the authorities through compulsory membership, with the possibility of a very disturbing effect on the other members if the organisation were forced to have in membership one who wished to resign. All research associations have to live with the threat of resignation by their major members. It keeps them on their toes and makes them determined to satisfy the needs of their industries.
Thirdly, my personal experience abroad has shown me the commercially debilitating effect on research organisations where they have a guaranteed income. For the sake of good relations with our many sister nations in the European Community, I think it would be better if I did not delineate some of those organisations now, though I could easily do so. When such an organisation has a guaranteed income, it tends to lose interest in its industry. It starts doing programmes of interesting, but academic work, divorced from the realities of the industry for which it works. I think we must not overlook the very good and valuable intentions of this amendment, but the Water Research Centre wishes to continue to show their value to their industry and to keep the authorities in voluntary membership. I think we ought to applaud their confidence in their own capabilities and not force them to accept captive members whom, I understand, they are not wildly keen on having.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Much of what I said on the last amendment is relevant also to this amendment, which as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has just said, moves from the general to the particular. This second new clause would require water authorities in England and Wales and Scotland, and also water companies, to belong to a water research association, such as the Water Research Centre.
Section 24 of the 1973 Water Act which I have quoted explicitly provides powers for water authorities to belong to or contribute to an organisation formed for the purpose of carrying out water research. The question is whether the enabling power we have is sufficient or whether we need a mandatory duty to subscribe and belong. Much of what I was going to say has already been said by the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, whose support I obviously welcome in this respect; but as to this basic question I must first draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that all the water 925 authorities in England and Wales are members of the WRC and, indeed, wholehearted members. So, too, are the water companies and the Scottish water undertakings: a point slightly queried in his own amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. I am told that on occasion the possibility of staying out or dropping out has been considered. It has never happened.
On occasion the leading lights of the WRC have expressed anxiety at the possiblity of an authority dropping out, with a consequent loss of subscription income. It is true that if that happened, the undertaking would still be able to get considerable and free benefit from the WRC's published work. Nevertheless, it is also healthy that the WRC should have to satisfy its subscribers, and that the subscribers should not be locked by statute into membership; and it is greatly to the WRC's credit that it has been able to retain its members on that basis. This is a slightly different point from that made by the noble Earl. I must tell him and the Committee generally that the chairman of the council of the WRC has recently told my ministerial colleagues that he is not in favour of compulsory membership, and that is laudable. But my principal point is that compulsory membership is not necessary.
That does not mean that anyone could take lightly the desire of a major subscriber to abandon membership of the Water Research Centre. There would be something wrong somewhere if that possibility were seriously contemplated. That is why, in another place, and speaking on this Bill, my honourable friend, the Under-Secretary of State pointed to the power in Section 24 to direct a water authority in respect of its arrangements for research and said that this Government are prepared to use that power should it ever be necessary. But I am bound to add that we believe this to be an entirely theoretical possibility.
This new clause also seems unnecessary because we believe the position of the Water Research Centre to be assured wilthout it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, will agree with that.
§ Lord Sherfield
Again, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I have also listened with great attention to the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, who has great experience of the nature and the habits of research associations. The committee, in making this recommendation, took account of certain observations that were made by certain people; but I understand from what the Minister said that the Water Research Centre is not itself now in favour of any such compulsory membership by water authorities. I also took particular note of the Minister's statement that a power does exist—although he thought it was a theoretical possibility—to oblige a water authority to subscribe.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
May I interrupt the noble Lord one second? Although the power exists, I did not say that it was a theoretical power. I said that its use was probably theoretical because it would not be required.
§ Lord Sherfield
I think that all I need to say is that 926 I hope there will not be any backsliding by a water authority in this connection. In the belief that if there is the department will be man enough to make it pay up, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave withdrawn.
§ The Earl of Swinton
I think the Committee has made enough progress for one night, and I beg to move that the House do now resume.
Moved accordingly, and, on question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.
§ House adjourned at seven minutes before eleven o'clock.