HL Deb 02 April 1984 vol 450 cc471-4

2.44 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask her Majesty's Government what guidelines are being issued to the new water authorities, regarding the admission of press and public to their meetings

Lord Skelmersdale

None, my Lords. However, the water authority chairmen follow a code of practice to let the press know in advance the items to be discussed at a metting of the authority, and to hold a press conference after each meeting to explain policies and decisions, and to answer questions. When consumer consultative committees and regional recreation and conservation committees are established this summer under Section 7 of the Water Act 1983, the press and the public will be able to attend their meetings.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that the total financial responsibilities of these authorities, taking into account current expenditure and capital expenditure or revenue, are nearly £3 billion? In a day and age when people are asking for more say in their own affairs, does he really think that these bodies should be able to meet in camera and take decisions about such sums, which are actually public funds, without the public and the press being aware of what the decision is about at the time it is being made?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it was exactly because of the capital structure of the water boards and the millions and millions of pounds involved in their asset values—the noble Lord quoted £3 billion—that the Government decided that the old way of organising water authorities was no longer appropriate and therefore used the Water Act 1983 to set up new small executive boards like those of major private sector companies. I really cannot describe them as meeting in camera, following the tone of the noble Lord's remarks, because of course they are fully accountable to the Secretary of State, who is himself fully accountable to Parliament.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was a meeting in another place between the chairman of the Yorkshire Water Authority and a number of Labour MPs when the chairman categorically refused to allow the facility of open meetings, and his excuse was that the people appointed to the board by the Secretary of State were too inexperienced? Where do we go from there?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I was not aware of the meeting in another place to which the noble Lord refers. It is for the water authorities themselves, if they want to do so, to vary the code. For example, in the case of the Welsh Water Authority, board meetings are open to the press.

Baroness Wootton of Abinger

My Lords, does that not carry the implication that only in the case of elected bodies has the public any right to know what is going on. but executive bodies are protected from public investigation?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I do not think that it does. As I said in my original Answer, the code of practice followed by all water authorities implies that they shall inform the press after each and every one of their meetings, and this they are most certainly doing.

Lord Alport

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is very great concern, at any rate in the country districts, about the fact that the water authorities no longer contain any elected element at all, which means that there is no direct response to local opinion within the areas concerned? Although my noble friend has said that the water authorities are responsible to the Secretary of State and therefore to Parliament, is not the truth of the matter surely that what is required for a public authority which is responsible for a social service such as the provision of water is for it to have a direct response to opinion in the locality it serves?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is exactly why consumer consultative committees are to be set up this summer. Agreement has now been obtained all round. On average, 50 per cent. of the representation on these committees will be from local authority members.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the Prime Minister was an early champion of open government when she successfully piloted legislation to open up council meetings to the press and the public? What is the difference between a council meeting, which is concerned with the expenditure of local monies, and a water authority? Is it not a fact that consumers, whether they are industrial or domestic, are entitled to see how more than £2,000 million is being spent, or wasted?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, they are still able to do so because, of course, they are still able to question the accounts and the underlying figures that make up the published accounts of the water authorities. As to the noble Lord's first point, concerning my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and her being involved with the enactment of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, yes of course this is perfectly correct; it is on the record. But I do not see that, with the structure as we now have it under the Water Act 1983, the water authorities can be described as a public body in the way that that Act describes them.

Lord Cledwyn of Penhros

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a widespread belief that people are now paying excessive amounts in respect of water supplies—especially in Wales, where we have plenty of it—and that the new dispensation, which excludes the press and the public, will increase the suspicion that people are in fact paying too much for their domestic water supply?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as one who, when I went home at the weekend, received his annual water bill, I must say I was rather surprised by the amount. However, the proper forum for discussing this and for taking up the complaint will be through the consumer consultative committee.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is widespread sympathy with the point behind the question of the noble Lord. Lord Dean, and that many people will be asking why it is that water authorities need to meet in secret at all? There is not much hope for open government unless, if I may say so, they at least can satisfy the public that their charges are reasonable. Will the Minister make it clear that responsibility to the Secretary of State is no substitution for responsibility to the local people, who have to pay for the water?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think there are two different thoughts involved in that supplementary question, but surely the point is that, as I said in answer to the original supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, because of their executive responsibility for a company which is, although in the public sector, to all intents and purposes a Companies Act company, there is no reason why their board meetings should be any different from those of a company in the private sector.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to tell me whether these consultative committees will be able to advise the regional water authorities to change certain of their regulations? The noble Lord will recall, for example, that the River Stour Trust has recently asked the regional water authority to change its regulations, only to be told that these, having recently been fixed, are now as solid as the laws of the Medes and Persians.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, most certainly they will be able, not only to advise but also to recommend in their own reports to the water authority.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, will cause a great deal of concern among those people who are being disenfranchised, or who will be if the GLC and other metropolitan county authorities are abolished? He seemed to be saying that in future a code of guidance will be sufficient, or will provide a sufficient accountability for the new quangos that are to be set up in future in place of the democratically-elected bodies that we now have. Could he enlarge on that?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, again I am afraid I do not see the relevance of our legislation on the restructuring of local government in so far as the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties goes; because, after all, the elector will be electing only one tier of local government in those areas, and from that tier will come the representation on the consumer consultative committees that I described earlier.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister consider asking the new water authorities to put at the top of their demands, in view of his replies, "Water, water everywhere, but not a chance to hear"?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, because there is every chance to hear.